The former housing planner and grants coordinator in Staunton’s local government says the city isn’t spending money meant to assist low-income residents with housing needs because it is following the advice of a consultant that doesn’t know what it’s doing.
The response from the city: radio silence.
Augusta Free Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get access to correspondence involving city leaders on the allegations made by Vincent Mani, who was fired from his housing planner and grants coordinator job on Dec. 29 three months after raising his concerns.
Assuming the city didn’t hide anything in its response to our FOIA request, there has been no internal discussion between the community development department, which Mani worked under, and the city manager’s office, and neither has there been any discussion on the matter between city administration and City Council.
Considering the explosive nature of the allegations raised by Mani, that silence has to be considered to be deafening.
The issue came to a head when Mani first raised his concerns in a Sept. 23 memo to higher-ups in which he pointed out that the city, to that point, had only spent 30 percent of its CDBG fund for fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021, and according to Mani, the main impediment to the city doing more is M&L Associates, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm that works with states and municipal clients in the community development and revitalization and affordable housing spheres.
Specific to Staunton, M&L Associates prepares program documents and provides recommendations on program design, administration and ongoing compliance with regulatory requirements for the city’s CDBG program.
According to Mani’s Sept. 23 memo, the city had $1,107,530 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021 to use to assist low-income residents.
Of that total, only $340,084.86 – 30.7 percent – had been spent.
“For the City to start using CDBG funds and help low-income people, it should first end its relationship with M&L,” Mani wrote in the Sept. 23 memo, suggesting that the city look for “a consultant from Virginia that knows environmental review, historic preservation, and lead-based paint rules since these rules are not HUD-specific regulations and require different specialties.”
Mani suggested in the memo that M&L Associates was aware of his concerns, was pushing back against his effort to have the city end its relationship with the consultant, and was making efforts to, as he put it, “push me out,” then wrote that the community development department, headed up by Vaughn, instead of taking action to deal with M&L, was “acting like a hostage” by siding with the consultant.
“The Dept. considers relationships with M&L and others are more critical than the CDBG program’s result,” Mani wrote. “The purpose of CDBG funds is to help low-income people in the City; as long as we assist low-income people, we can remove any other barrier in our way.”
The Sept. 23 memo led to Mani being removed from having any role in the oversight of the city CDBG program, and Mani spent the bulk of his city time for the next three months working on a research project related to homelessness, people at risk of homelessness, household income, and housing cost burden in Staunton and Waynesboro.
On Dec. 29, Vaughn fired Mani in a face-to-face meeting in City Hall, confirming the decision in a Jan. 3 letter in which Vaughn cited what he termed “insubordination, unsatisfactory job performance and unprofessional behaviors.”
Mani, then, in a Jan. 3 email addressed to members of Staunton City Council, City Manager Leslie Beauregard, City Attorney John Blair, and Jonathan Venn, the city’s director of human resources, asserted that the issues that he has raised about the administration of the CDBG funds should have afforded him protections under state and federal whisteblower protection laws.
Mani did get a response from one member of the City Council to the Jan. 3 email, from Andrea Oakes, who was at the time the city’s mayor, that seemed to indicate that City Council members had not been aware of the issues that Mani had raised back in September.
Oakes, as we’d previously reported, wrote back to Mani to let him know that she would see to it that the matter raised by Mani would be brought to the attention of Blair, the city attorney.
For our most recent report on this issue, on Jan. 13, we’d reached out to the city for an update on whether the city government was following through with a review of Mani’s request, as Oakes had indicated would be done.
A spokesperson for the city declined the opportunity to comment at that time.
This is what prompted our decision to file the FOIA request. We wanted to see if the city had followed through on that promised review.
The only indication that there has been any movement in that area is a request that was made to M&L Associates on Jan. 6 for a response to Mani’s allegations, which was returned on Jan. 12 by William P. Wasielewski, the secretary/principal at M&L.
In that response, Wasielewski detailed the work done by M&L Associates on behalf of the city, including the preparation of Annual Action Plans, environmental reviews for all proposed CDBG-funded activities, and Consolidated Annual Performance and Evaluation Reports, “all of which were approved by HUD,” Wasielewski wrote in the Jan. 12 response.
In terms of the issue raised by Mani regarding the lack of progress by the city in using its CDBG funds, Wasielewski wrote that “it should be noted that the City’s CDBG program began just before the COVID 19 pandemic.”
“Once the pandemic hit, it became difficult for all communities, not just Staunton, to implement CDBG funded projects in a timely fashion. The pandemic caused unprecedented delays in completing construction/rehabilitation related projects, which would explain why the City has shown limited progress in completing these projects and achieving the goals it established in the five-year plan,” Wasielewski wrote.
That response seems to be the end of the trail in terms of any kind of city review of Mani’s allegations.