The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s Board of Directors closed out its day-long retreat last month by ranking its top 10 priorities, agreeing that above all else, the agency’s intergovernmental agreement between Pitkin County and the city of Aspen still needs tweaking.
The main point of contention lies in the question of who APCHA’s executive director ultimately answers to.
“I believe that he reports to us,” board chair John Ward said.
Ward is one of four appointed volunteer citizens who make up the board of directors. They are joined by two representatives each from the city and the county. The hybrid governance model that includes volunteers and elected officials was established by the newest IGA, created by Pitkin County commissioners and Aspen City Council in May.
APCHA Executive Director Mike Kosdrosky has called his role untenable. At the retreat, he said serving the interests of the board, while ultimately reporting to the city manager, has at times pulled him in opposing directions.
“It’s very difficult to run an organization when you have so many interests at play and it’s very difficult to run an organization when you have more than one master,” Kosdrosky told the board at the Sept. 27 retreat on the Aspen Meadows campus.
The majority of the funds for the development of affordable housing comes from the city, which collects a real estate transfer tax earmarked for the purpose. New RETTs are no longer legal in Colorado, and the county does not have the same influx of funds to set aside for housing.
Still, “Both the city and county provide a subsidy in excess of $400,000 a year to APCHA operations,” Aspen City Manager Sara Ott said.
As it stands, Kosdrosky is a direct report to Ott, who had been serving in an interim manager role for the majority of the year, and was selected by the city council in August as the permanent city manager. The staff of APCHA are classified as city employees and their pay and benefits are administered through city hall.
Councilmember Rachel Richards is the city’s alternate on the APCHA board. At the retreat, she said it would be complicated to disconnect the management of the agency from its budget.
“I don’t see APCHA having an independent director until it has independent funding,” Richards said.
But Kosdrosky said there were arrangements in which the director of APCHA could act as a fiscal agent of the city’s money, without having to report directly to the city manager’s office. He said there have been times when the board and the manager’s office have given him conflicting directives, putting him in a difficult position. For example, there have been multiple guideline amendments over the years supported by the APCHA board that have not been supported by city and county management.
“It’s the elephant in the room that I don’t think some of you are recognizing” Kosdrosky said.
Speaking last week on the matter, Ott said it is up to leadership to make sure the system works well for all involved.
“The IGA is clear of what the reporting structure is. And then I think it’s incumbent on the chair of APCHA and I to work together to alleviate the concerns,” Ott said.
At the retreat, the majority of the board agreed with Kosdrosky, and cited a renegotiated IGA as the first project to tackle. However, APCHA cannot itself amend the IGA, because the agreement is between the county and the city. The staff and board can offer recommendations, but they are non-binding.
The board has asked that the discussion come up in front of elected officials during its next joint meeting on Nov. 7.
The issue came to a head again during an APCHA board meeting on Oct. 2, the week after the retreat, in the form of debate over a press release issued by APCHA. Kosdrosky presented it as an example of the uncertainty he regularly finds himself in with respect to his reporting structure.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office carried out the eviction earlier that day of Amanda Tucker, a woman who was found to be violating APCHA guidelines for her rental housing after an administrative and court battle. Following the event, Kosdrosky issued a news release about the case. It noted that Tucker refused to voluntarily give up her Aspen Country Inn unit after “nearly two years of court proceedings” and several formal notices, while citing the sheriff’s authority to carry out the eviction. APCHA is bound to enforce its rules, the release says.
“If an individual or household fails to follow the rules, it creates inequities in a system designed to be equitable and fair for those who remain compliant,” Kosdrosky says in the release, which called out Tucker by name and listed her address.
In the APCHA board meeting that evening, Richards asked that the board set aside time to discuss how press releases are handled in the future.
“The tone and tenor would have benefited from having some review by the board members,” Richards said.
She expressed concern that other agencies mentioned in the press release also weren’t consulted. Kosdrosky confirmed that Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock contacted him regarding the release.
“He called it completely inappropriate, and I disagree with that contention,” Kosdrosky told the board.
He said vetting the release with each interested party would have bogged down the process of providing information to the public.
“Am I supposed to now go before the board and get official approval? Or just get approval from certain members of the board? Or am I supposed to just get approval from the city manager? Or do I now have to consult the county manager?” Kosdrosky asked.
County Commissioner George Newman, who serves as the county’s voting APCHA board member, agreed with Richards that there may be times when a contentious issue deserves more consultation.
Kosdrosky said that during the retreat, he received direction from the board to be more open and proactive with public information. He said writing the press release complied with that request.
“Yet I’m being called to the mat for doing exactly what you instructed me to do. So which is it? What do you really want me to do? You can’t have it more than one way and I can’t have more than one master,” Kosdrosky said.
County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury countered that the board also spent a good deal of time at the retreat talking about APCHA’s need to rebuild community trust.
“I don’t know anything that would create more fear than calling someone out by name and address as an example for compliance efforts,” she said. “I think there is a way to celebrate the success of the compliance program without having to signal an individual out. I don’t think the tone paid credence to that long discussion we had.”
Kosdrosky said he did not find the tone of the press release to be unfair, and said that for the yearslong legal battle leading up to the eviction, APCHA stayed quiet and was not able to give its side of the story to the public.
“This is not about a community member’s misfortune, this is about a community member who cheated and lied to unfairly obtain and keep her affordable housing units at the expense of qualified applicants,” Kosdrosky said at the Oct. 2 board meeting.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo attended the board meeting and Ward invited him to speak. DiSalvo said the eviction was a task of his department, as assigned by the courts, and it was not APCHA’s role to take on the public information aspect of the operation.
“In 35 years I’ve never done a press release on any eviction,” DiSalvo said. “I do find this distasteful; this is not the way the community treats each other. This is embarrassing for people, it is at the lowest point of their lives. I do take it as a victory lap; that’s how I read it.”
Kosdrosky contended that the eviction case was between APCHA and Tucker, and called the sheriff’s office a conduit, not a primary agency.
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” DiSalvo responded.
“This is not appropriate,” Ott said from the audience, encouraging Ward to close the conversation.
Ward said he was also surprised to find the press release in his inbox, but supported Kosdrosky’s actions because the majority of the public wants to see that APCHA removes residents who violate the guidelines.
“There’s been a little controversy on it. I sided with the fact that I think it was a good thing,” Ward said. “Ultimately I think the public wants us to enforce our rules. There’s rules in place and I think 80, 90 percent of the public want us to enforce it.”
Kosdrosky warned that the problem is within the governance structure itself, and reiterated the need to prioritize a restructuring of APCHA’s operating agreement between the city and county, regardless of who sits in the executive director’s seat.
“Once and for all I need to explain to the board, this is difficult for me because I want to serve you and this community,” Kosdrosky. “At the same time, on these terms it’s very difficult for me or anybody in this position. And it’s just quite frankly not fair.”