Many tenants remain dissatisfied with building’s approach
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
Editor’s note: Tenant Elaine Champagne submitted a letter to the editor regarding her assessment of the situation. Read it here.
The Pelham Non-Profit Housing Corporation’s board of directors held an “hour of open dialogue” with tenants last Monday evening, four days after it abruptly cancelled its Annual General Meeting, and one week after the Voice published an investigation into management practices, including improper apartment entires, illegal fees, allegations of bullying, and tenant concerns about governance.
At the scheduled AGM, the Voice and other non-tenants were present at the invitation of several building residents. Rather than permit non-tenants to observe the meeting, board president Geoff Kirkwood cancelled the open session and moved the board behind closed doors.
In an audio recording obtained by the Voice of Monday’s “open dialogue,” Kirkwood can be heard beginning the meeting with 45 or so tenants by asserting that the board was not required to allow non-tenants to observe the AGM.
“[Under] our by-laws, article five, five-one, and I read: ‘The board must hold an Annual General Meeting open to tenants,’” said Kirkwood. “Nowhere does it indicate that the general public can attend.”
Kirkwood said that the board held its AGM privately, at which it received its auditor’s report. This would appear to contravene the by-law requiring an AGM open to tenants. Responding to a Voice query on this point by email on Sunday evening, Kirkwood did not directly answer, writing, “the meeting was relocated ‘elsewhere in the Town of Pelham, as determined by the Board’ so that the Audited Financial Report could be reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors in a timely manner. This is also in accordance with the Corporation’s by-laws.”
Kirkwood told tenants that they did not “have the right to see the financial results of the corporation,” nor to invite non-tenants to the AGM. He also refused to provide tenants with the board’s governing by-laws.
Kirkwood asserted that surveys conducted among tenants over the past several years showed that a majority were satisfied with the building. He also read testimonials apparently written by tenants.
“‘You are the best,’” read Kirkwood. “‘We have the best management and staff ever.’ ‘No reason for complaints.’ It all paints a very positive picture.”
Before allowing tenants to speak, Kirkwood said that he was not going to address anything included in the Voice’s investigation.
“I’m not going to debate with you all the incidents in the paper since 2000-and-whatever. They were all dealt with. That’s water under the bridge,” he said.
The Voice’s investigation detailed incidents and allegations from 2012 through early this year.
Elaine Champagne, who moved into the building last year with her husband, Bill, said that initially they were not bothered by the concerns of other tenants.
“We discussed with Catherine some of these things, and [we] said they’re not affecting us. We don’t care. When the newspaper article broke, we found out that we did care,” said Champagne. She chastised Kirkwood for the board’s response to the questions posed by the Voice.
“How do you respond appropriately to illegal entry, to bullying, to harassment, to elder abuse? What you should have said [to the paper] was, ‘Please allow us the time to meet with all of the individuals concerned, sit down and try to sort this out,’” said Champagne.
“Instead, you responded with a bullying attitude. So they printed that. I was shocked. I was devastated,” said Champagne, now speaking to the other tenants present. “Just because it didn’t happen to me and Bill, just because it didn’t happen to some of you, doesn’t mean it can’t. Because it does. And it could.”
She turned to the subject of illegal entries of apartments by superintendent Mike Fairman.
“We apologize for that,” said Kirkwood, who admitted that Fairman had entered an apartment illegally on one occasion. (Tenants allege many more such entries.)
“I’ve been asking,” continued Champagne, ‘Who are the bosses?’ I understood that you don’t have a boss. You’re wrong. Public opinion is your boss. Have you read the social media? Do you know the comments that have come in? You can slap us around with what you’ve said. You were responsible for this going in the paper. You were also responsible for the fiasco at your Annual General Meeting. You tried to bully and muscle people…You do have bosses. I’m asking you as a board to resign, and to let Catherine and Mike go.”
After the meeting, Champagne told the Voice that she has heard King refer disparagingly to another tenant as, “the princess.”
Barb Beamer called King’s use of the term “unprofessional.”
“Who knows what she calls us [when we’re not around],” said Beamer.
Board vice-president Jake Dilts, who has been involved with the building since its inception in 1980, was also in attendance. Tenant Irene Shepperd said that Dilts sat behind her, mocking tenants who raised concerned during the meeting.
“When someone would speak he would call them a troublemaker, and laugh at them,” said Shepperd.
At one point in the meeting, Dilts himself rose to address the room.
“I’m very disturbed about people talking about this building,” said Dilts. “It’s one of the greatest buildings around, and I have helped everybody in this building personally. People in this building should start backing people like us that put our effort in this building,” remarks that earned applause from tenants perceived to be upset by their neighbours raising concerns.
Though he is board vice-president, later in the week Dilts appeared to suggest that his influence is limited. When asked by the Voice whether the board would respond to future questions from the newspaper, Dilts said, “It’s up to them…I just play along with the game.”
“Everything works out in the end,” continued Dilts. “We’ll see how it all works out.”
Bill Champagne spoke about the board’s communication style. Earlier in the meeting, Kirkwood had clarified an issue regarding snow removal, saying that this year’s contractor had been sub-par but that the board was waiting for the contract to expire.
“Why [didn’t] you publicize that?” said Bill. “Put out a little note that says, ‘You’re all concerned, we’re aware of the problem, just wait until the contract is up.’ But that didn’t happen, and that never happens around here.”
Champagne also critiqued Catherine King’s response to concerned tenants.
“Catherine told me that these people doing this are just troublemakers,” he said. “Since then I’ve found out that’s a lie. They’re not troublemakers. They have legitimate concerns. How do I react to that? They’ve got pictures, they’ve got everything. We need some resolution to this—there are people with pokers, putting powder on their floor.”
Kirkwood expressed disbelief that any tenants are so afraid of illegal entries that they have knives and pokers around them, and asked Champagne to tell him who was doing so.
Susan Gibbard-Welsh stood up a short time later.
“I am the person who complained,” she said. “I have a heavy large brass lamp stick, and I sleep with it beside the bed.”
Gibbard-Welsh’s apartment was the one that Kirkwood admitted superintendent Mike Fairman entered without permission. Gibbard-Welsh alleges that Fairman was in her apartment without proper notice on other occasions, one of which was corroborated to the Voice by an eyewitness.
“I am also leaving, and God help me I can’t get out of here fast enough,” said Gibbard-Welsh. “I am not subsidized. I can’t afford to live anywhere else. But my children do not want to see me afraid to be in my home.”
Ralph Beamer raised the matter of general governance with Kirkwood.
“We like our apartment. No problem with the building as far as how it’s kept. It’s spotless,” began Beamer. “But there should be more people on the board.”
Beamer applied to be on the board last year, only to be rejected for “reasons of conflict.” According to Beamer, Kirkwood could not provide an example of such a conflict.
“I’m really disappointed that you won’t [have a tenant on the board],” said Beamer.
Kirkwood said that there are currently four board members, and another prospective one. He refused to answer when Beamer asked him who the prospective member was.
Upon learning that there was to be a new board member, tenants told Kirkwood that the board position had not been advertised.
“Yes, we advertised,” said Kirkwood. “We’ve put out press releases asking for people.”
The Voice was unable to find evidence that the board had advertised for new members. Kirkwood did not respond to the newspaper when asked where and when such notices appeared.
“We find [it] very difficult to get people to give their time to service organizations,” said Kirkwood.
But when asked by tenant Helga Hall why the board rejected former Town of Pelham Councillor Sharon Cook, who served on the board for ten years and who has applied twice to rejoin, Kirkwood refused to answer.
“I don’t think it’s up to me to discuss personal business in a meeting such as this,” said Kirkwood.
Tenant Gayla Kingston told Kirkwood that he wasn’t directly answering any of the questions asked of him.
Many tenants in the room did appear to be supportive of the board, according to some present.
“It’s been done, it’s been over with. Why does it have to be re-hashed,” said Bonnie Puhl. “Oh, this happened, and that happened. They got compensated for it. As far as these accusations, so-called, that’s nobody’s goddamned business.”
Puhl was apparently referring to building manager Catherine King’s personal relationship with superintendent Mike Fairman.
Bill Champagne told Puhl that the tenants’ concern was that Fairman reported to King, meaning that their relationship could affect the way that King dealt with tenant complaints about him.
Tenant Brian Hunt called for neighbours to stop fighting with one another, and to unite for a stronger tenants association that could bring all concerns directly to the board.
Kirkwood repeatedly told tenants that their comments would be taken into consideration by the board. Elaine Champagne told Kirkwood that the meeting had resolved nothing.
“This is just a pat on the head. This won’t work for us now,” she said. “The invasions have to stop. The abuse has to stop. The bullying has to stop. We have to have a follow-up. Let us know. I don’t threaten, but I never break a promise, and we will be moving forward.”
Niagara Falls Regional Councillor and Niagara Regional Housing board member Selina Volpatti told the Voice that she intends to raise the governance issues at Pelham Non-Profit at the next NRH board meeting. While NRH does not oversee the building, it does have a contract to supply subsidies for 20 rent- geared-to-income units.
Though Volpatti acknowledged that NRH will likely be unable to force Pelham Non-Profit to hold open board meetings or to release its by-laws, she said that she would be looking at NRH’s options for having such governance requirements in future contracts.
“I will certainly be raising that at the next board meeting,” she said.
Volpatti said that the board shouldn’t have absolute power, “with the tenants left out to dry.”
“It’s terrible,” she said, saying that she intends to consult with Pelham Regional Councillor Brian Baty before the next NRH meeting, scheduled for May 25. Baty expressed his concerns about the tenants’ situation in the Voice’s original reporting, while Pelham’s other Regional Councillor, Mayor Dave Augustyn, declined to comment.