Lenoir City housing board votes not to renew contract with director

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

LENOIR CITY — The Lenoir City Housing Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously Thursday night not to renew the contract for Executive Director Debbie Cook.
The vote follows the release earlier this week of an independent review of the authority which found numerous deficiencies ranging from travel policies to excessive spending.
Board Chairman Frank Hahn presented a resolution calling for the board not to extend Cook’s contract when it ends June 30 and not to enter into another contract with the next executive director.
“I don’t find the need for a contract for anyone in this position,” Hahn said. Hahn suggested that the board continue to investigate irregularities within the authority and reiterated the position of Lenoir City Attorney Jim Scott, who advocated the matter be turned over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation .
“We don’t know where this will lead,” he said.

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The board reviewed the findings of an audit of expenses by Cook and the authority, including a door that was supposed to cost $850 but ended up costing $3,400, employees filling up their gas tanks and charging it to the authority and numerous instances of per diem travel expenses that were paid even though the conferences attended provided meals.
Board member David Martin said he was very surprised by the review. “Keep in mind that this is an 18-month report. I’d hate to see a five-year report,” he said. Martin likened the paying of reimbursements for meals when they were provided as “the same as taking something from Walmart without paying for it.” Hahn agreed, saying “you can’t double dip.”
Other findings of deficiencies included a six-day stay in Miami for a four-day conference, expenses for trips to Nashville and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. In one case, two meals were charged to the authority while on a trip to Knoxville to buy curtains for the director’s office.
Cook, who is currently on medical leave, said she has not had time to review all the deficiencies listed in the report. On Monday, when the report was presented to City Council, she said she was not impressed with the audit’s findings.
She said on Thursday there were explanations for many of the issues cited. For example, an employee that attended conferences and was reimbursed for meals is a diabetic who cannot always eat the meals offered at the conference.
She said that in her 25 years working for the Lenoir City Housing Authority she has always tried to do the best for the city’s residents.
“Those who know me know that I’ve done my best,” she said.