Housing director fired
Jeremy Styron News-Herald.net
Following an audit by Knoxville-based Brown Jake & McDaniel that seemed to reveal an 18-month record of mismanagement at Lenoir City Housing Authority, the agency’s board of commissioners Thursday voted 3-1 to dismiss Executive Director Debbie Cook.

In June, the housing authority voted against renewing Cook’s contract, which expired Thursday. Her current contract with the authority began in June 2012.

“I’d like an explanation of why I have been relieved of my duties,” Cook said.

Authority Chairman Frank Hahn said while Cook supplied an answer to the audit, which examined the period from Jan. 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, the response was not sufficient.

“It’s all a matter of record as far as the fact that what we found in the audit,” Hahn said. “What your responses are, they’re not adequate to show anything, and the other thing is we’ve all worked with you at least a year or more, and we know how you are. That’s it.”

The audit, which was conducted for about $25,000 at the behest of Lenoir City Council, revealed that board members and staff attended 13 conferences, including one to Miami, during the 18-month period. The document also showed various upgrades to Cook’s office and the housing authority’s parking area.

Hahn and commissioners David Martin and Cheri Brown cast the deciding votes without comment, while resident Commissioner Jeff Ward, a longtime supporter of Cook, dissented and walked out during the meeting.

Hahn then read a prepared statement outlining a procedure for Cook to conclude her business with the authority, which included a mandate to immediately hand over all agency possessions to the acting executive director.

Lee Trout, housing authority maintenance supervisor, was the acting director while Cook was absent during the June meeting.

“Excuse me, please, here are my keys,” an emotional Cook said as she approached the board. “I have no other possessions, no other housing authority possessions in my possession.”

“How about the phone?” Hahn asked.

“The phone is in Lee’s possession, and it has been,” Cook said.

The board then voted 3-0 to make Trout interim director. After her termination, Cook consulted with her attorney, Richard Scrugham Jr., throughout the remainder of the meeting.

Housing authority resident Penny Covington said Cook and other board members helped her get into a program to obtain her high school diploma and was subsequently awarded a scholarship to study electrical engineering. She then obtained employment at Knoxville Utilities Board. She said Cook stayed at work on her “personal time” to assist with her resume.

“So I guess my comment is that I was under the impression that what I’ve been told is that the reason for her dismissal was of misuse of funding,” Covington said. “I guess to me you’re probably correct because there’s plenty of time she’s stayed over on overtime to help us.”

Lenoir City resident Pat Hunter asked the board if Cook’s responses to the audit were discussed in public.

“Everyone independently reviewed it, and that was it,” Hahn said. “So, if there was any additional reason to discuss it, it would have come up at this point and time.”

In response to another question from Hunter, Hahn also said the authority had not received feedback from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I always thought that the facility looked real nice; it’s well kept,” Hunter said. “I personally think it’s a shame that Ms. Cook won’t be able to work here any longer because I’ve seen improvements over the years, and they were good improvements.”

Scrugham declined comment on the housing authority’s action.