Tired of being scapegoated: NHA board reps respond to allegations, newspaper articles
A former and a current member of the Navajo Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners say they’re tired of being scapegoated for problems within the NHA.
And if the Navajo Nation Council hopes to make any progress on the Nation’s homelessness issue it needs to support its housing authority instead of constantly threatening its extinction.
Board Chairwoman Derrith Watchman-Moore and former board member Frankie Lee were appointed as part of the NHA’s first Council-mandated professional NHA board in 2017.
Watchman-Moore, currently a trustee for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Phase II Removal Evaluation Trust, has a master’s degree and Lee is an engineer.
“All of us came into the NHA board wanting to be the best public servant possible,” Watchman-Moore recalled.
Added Lee, “The assumption was that NHA was a broken agency, and we were there to fix it.”
Some of that assumption was based on a series of articles in the Arizona Republic titled “The Navajo Housing Tragedy.”
But after the new board did a little investigating on its own, it found many of the claims made in the series were exaggerated or misleading.
Nevertheless, the board commissioned an internal audit, overhauled some policies and abolished the sub-recipient program, where a lot of the audit findings were coming from.
It also digitized the maintenance records, replacing an outdated system of paper forms that had resulted in delays and duplication, and the land records.
On July 11, 2018, a little over a year after the board accepted the resignation of NHA CEO Aneva Yazzie, it hired Craig Dougall as the new CEO. Dougall had years of experience with tribal housing authorities and seemed to be a good fit.
The board also had to take over two lawsuits with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that were in the appeals process.
“We felt like we were on a good path,” Lee said. “We were excited to chart a new course for NHA.”
Not fast enough for Councll
But it soon became apparent the new course wasn’t happening fast enough for the Navajo Nation Council.
“We’re hiring a new CEO, we’re restructuring, we’re heavily involved in these lawsuits, and all we hear from the Council is ‘Build more houses, build more houses,’” Lee recalled.
Council also attacked the board for ending a popular program that had set aside 300 free homes for veterans.
Watchman-Moore and Lee said the program violated their federal mandate to prioritize “the neediest of the needy.”
“Some veterans need a free house, and some don’t,” Lee explained. “If we give an unqualified veteran a home, we’re taking it away from a single mom with kids or a grandparent raising their grandchildren.”
Some Council delegates were also pressuring the NHA to build homes in their chapters, Lee and Watchman-Moore said, particularly before the last election.
“I was unprepared for the amount of politics that went with this board,” said Lee. “We were trying to put the past behind us, but we kept having to deal with all these issues that were carryovers from the previous board.”
He was also unprepared for the amount of time the supposed volunteer position was taking up.
There were weeks when the board met almost daily, and the Council seemed to expect them to be on call to appear at a moment’s notice to answer questions, notwithstanding the fact that they all had day jobs.
In October of 2018, Dougall proposed in an email that the board members each receive a quarterly stipend to help compensate them for all the time they spent on NHA outside of their regular meetings.
“We weren’t getting paid for all the phone calls, all the emails,” said Lee. “I counted more than 3,700 email threads from my time at NHA, and each one of those threads has multiple emails.
“Keep in mind that we’re professionals,” he said, “and all this takes time away from our work.”
Attorney reviews stipends
Wondering if a quarterly stipend was OK, the board bounced it off BOC member Sean McCabe, a CPA, as well as NHA’s staff attorney and the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.
Nobody had a problem with it, so the board, after figuring out what they felt was fair for the hours they put in, approved a directive for a quarterly stipend of $12,000.
Little did they know they had walked into a trap. It wasn’t long before the board started having problems with Dougall.
They can’t disclose what they were because it’s a personnel issue, but suffice it to say they resulted in a White Collar Crime investigation.
There is currently a charge of extortion pending against Dougall, along with a petition to ban him from the reservation, in connection with his dealings with NHA.
After he was fired in April of 2019, Dougall went to the press with the stipend issue, saying it amounted to receiving stipends in advance of meetings.
Although the board presented evidence to the Resources and Development Committee that the quarterly stipends were Dougall’s own idea, and it was thoroughly vetted by attorneys, Council delegates continue to bring up the issue when talking about the NHA, including in a recent Nabik’iyati’ Committee work session on housing.
Lee and Watchman-Moore say they have not accepted any stipends this year.
More recently, the board came under fire again for terminating CEO Frank Dayish in February, after less than a year in his post.
Dayish also went to the press, alleging his firing was retaliation for blowing the whistle on some bad practices at NHA, and that anyway the board can’t fire him because Watchman-Moore has stayed beyond her term so the board no longer has a quorum.
Lee and Watchman-Moore say Dayish simply failed to fulfill the terms of his contract, even after being issued an employee improvement plan, and if he blew the whistle on anything, he didn’t tell the board about it.
Again, they can’t divulge details of personnel actions, but say the truth will come out in Dayish’s appeal to the Navajo Labor Relations Board.
As for staying beyond their terms, Lee and Watchman-Moore both admit that’s true, but not because they wanted to.
Lee, who was recently replaced on the board by another engineer, David Sloan, said he didn’t want to leave the board without a quorum during this difficult period (McCabe resigned before the end of his term, leaving Lee, Watchman-Moore and Kerrie Begaye the only three left of the original five-member board).
Watchman-Moore tendered her resignation two years ago, but said President Jonathan Nez didn’t accept it, instead urging her to stay on until he could appoint a successor.
“It’s not our fault if government isn’t appointing people to the board,” Lee said.
Recently, Watchman-Moore received an unsigned letter, not on letterhead, purporting to be from RDC Chairman Rickie Nez.
The letter was dated Jan. 25 and stated Watchman-Moore was “hereby relieved” of her appointment to the board effective immediately, accusing her of double-dipping from federal coffers by working for the EPA and serving on the NHA board.
She didn’t take it seriously since the RDC chairman can’t unilaterally remove anyone from a commission appointment, but the letter was also sent to Watchman-Moore’s supervisors at EPA Region 9, which Lee calls “a personal attack on Derrith’s employment.”
Rickie Nez did not answer an email by press time asking if he wrote the letter and sent it to the EPA.
Watchman-Moore said her employers ignored the letter, but it still shook her up that someone would try to discredit her with her bosses.
“If they want professional people and then they’re going to go after people’s jobs, I don’t know who’s going to want to serve on this board,” she said.
As far as the constant criticism from Council and the news articles, “It just hurts,” she said. “If we have issues with each other, let’s solve our issues like we did in the old way, with kindness for each other.
“Yes, we failed to solve homelessness on the Navajo Nation,” she said, “but I can honestly say we did our best. We were appointed to be apolitical in a political process, and we did that.”
Lee said the board members are in an impossible situation.
“We’re not employees, we’re just volunteers,” he said. “We’re certainly not public figures. We didn’t go looking for public office.
“We accepted these appointments because we wanted to do something for our people,” he said, “not so we could be called up by Council to get yelled at.”