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Charlotte Housing Authority pays big bucks to Wooldridge's PR firm to help improve its image

It would be kind of like hiring former Panthers coach George Seifert to teach a seminar on how to be a winner. The Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA), which has recently fallen into disrepute, has hired Phoenix Communications, Ltd., to help it improve its image. That's the same firm, headed by Tom Drew, that handled public relations for Hornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge and the team in the months leading up to the arena referendum debacle. By that time, Charlotteans who had had no opinion of Wooldridge before had come to despise him.

CHA, which oversees much of the city's public housing, is two months into a four-month contract with Phoenix. The authority, which is struggling to find ways to pay for at least $20 million worth of renovations to crumbling public housing developments, is paying Phoenix $4,000 a month.

Exactly what Phoenix is being paid to do for CHA and what the firm has accomplished so far appears to be unclear to both staff and board members. Authority exec Charles Woodyard said Friday that the mission of the communications firm is still being defined.

Board member Kip Kiser finds the whole thing bizarre.

"I have yet to find out what they were hired to do," said Kiser. "That's kind of stupid to go spend money and not know what they are going to do."

Kiser said he originally requested that the authority hire someone good at public relations "because we were so incompetent with PR that we didn't know what to do." Kiser meant that the agency should fire its full-time PR person and replace her. He has long been perturbed that this individual not only remains employed by the agency, but also continues to have full-time use of a vehicle owned by the authority despite consultant recommendations in a report last year that she be fired.

Kiser said he didn't intend for the agency to hire a PR firm and keep a full-time PR person on staff.

"I'm not sure what our mission is here," said Kiser.

The agency's quest for good public relations is rooted in its quest for money. After stories detailing embarrassing management blunders within the agency from a leaked management report ran in local media, Charlotte City Council members became even more reluctant than they already were to give city dollars to the agency, or associate themselves or their affordable housing initiatives with it. So for CHA, better public relations means more credibility, which it needs for a shot at some city or county funding it desperately needs to prop up crumbling public housing structures.

That's why authority management's decision to hire Phoenix is so odd. Of all the people who have caused the council and commission public embarrassment, Wooldridge, presumably acting on communications advise from Drew, ranks at the top of the list. The only person more unpopular among Charlotteans than Wooldridge is the Hornets' principal owner, George Shinn.

Woodyard said that Phoenix may be hired on a more permanent basis after its four-month, $16,000 contract expires.

Last week, Drew, who appeared to be joking, offered tickets to that evening's Hornets game to the Creative Loafing reporter covering the CHA board meeting at which he was giving a presentation. From there, things went downhill. When asked by Drew to rate how the authority was doing at its main mission of providing public housing to its residents, several morose board members gave the organization grades of C and D.

Before Drew's presentation last week, CHA board members had never publicly given such low marks to their own performance.

Board member Eric Douglas, who is also President of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Caucus, insinuated that the agency had gotten bad coverage because members of the media had racist and stereotypical notions of the largely black residents who live in public housing.

"They call them 'those people,'" said Douglas. "Even the (city) council calls them 'those people.'"

A review of CL's coverage of CHA matters turned up no mention of the term "those" connected with the term "people." In fact, most local media coverage of the agency in the last year has focused on sloppy management practices CHA leaders detailed in the Fedder Reznick & Silverman report, not on situations having to do with the residents themselves. The residents' well-being, said CL editor John Grooms, was in fact the underlying concern of this paper's coverage of the agency.

"[Douglas' comments] sound like a political smokescreen," said Grooms. "Just because an African American official is criticized, that doesn't make the critic a racist. That's illogical to the point of being absurd, not to mention self-serving. We are committed to reporting on issues that are important to the less privileged in our city. If someone's mismanagement is causing some poor people's situation to be worse than it needs to be, we'll point it out, whether the people responsible are white, black, purple or green. Incompetence is incompetence and it comes in all colors. Some politicos like to play the race card at inappropriate times, and this is one of them. The shame is that crying wolf that way makes people less willing to believe it when genuine racism is pointed out." *

Speaking of Metrobeat.html

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