May 20 2009 12:00 AM


Twenty-one year Lansing Housing Commission Executive Director Chris Stuchell has resigned in what was called a “mutual agreement” between him and the commission board. But he has since retained prominent local attorney George Brookover.

Neither Brookover nor Stuchell would comment on the situation, but rumors of a strained relationship between Stuchell and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero have been circulating for more than a year.

LHC board President Vince Villegas, a local Realtor, sent out a press release late on the night of May 13 explaining that the resignation was discussed between board members and Stuchell for “a few weeks.”

Some say that a dispute between the mayor and Stuchell over Oliver Towers led to his departure.

“They were not good friends,” former commission president Pat Curran said.

Curran speculated that Bernero was upset that Stuchell questioned the Bernero administration and was slow to try and sell Oliver Towers, a low-income housing complex on Capitol Avenue on the north side of downtown that was damaged in a 2000 fire.

"When you raise issues with him, you’re seen as anti-Virg," she added.

Curran, who served on the commission for seven years, suspects that her support for Stuchell led to her removal, but she counts herself as a Bernero supporter.

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development office gave permission for the LHC to sell the property in 2001, but as yet, no serious offers have been made on the property. Curran says Stuchell wanted the property "off the books" because of estimates that showed it would be too expensive to fix.

Oliver Towers, which houses the LHC’s offices, has been closed since the fire with more than one group lining up to use it.

A group of churches has been pushing for the building to be turned into an apartment building for the transitionally homeless. City officials have balked at the idea, saying that scattered site housing is best for that group of people.

Last year, the Capital Area District Library asked voters to approve a millage that would allow it to buy Oliver Towers so it could construct a new $47 million library and Impression 5 Science Center museum. That millage, however, failed.

Former commissioner Pat St. George said was surprised at Stuchell’s resignation, but he would not speculate on any of the rumored rifts between him and Bernero.

The only reason she could come up with for Stuchell’s resignation was that he lost the confidence and support of the board.

to reach both Stuchell and the mayor for comment were unsuccessful.

There has been a pattern of LHC board members coming and going over the
years. Department of Planning and Neighborhood Development
Director Bob Johnson took a seat on the board in December 2007, but was
replaced in July 2008 by Villegas. Johnson left, he said,
because of language in the City Charter that might bar city officials
from serving on a board or commission.

“Just to be safe,”
Johnson said of why he quit, and to “avoid the appearance of conflict.”

The board is now composed of Villegas, Vice President Mary Welch and
members Gina Nelson and Tony Baltimore, who runs Rep. Mike Rogers’
Lansing office. Bernero has the power to appoint or remove board
members without approval of the City Council. Nelson was Bernero’s
candidate for City Council against Carol Wood two years ago. A slot on
the board reserved for a resident of city low-income housing is vacant.

The most recent minutes available for the board meetings are
from Feb. 11. According to the minutes, Stuchell said, referring to
Oliver Towers, “It had been too long and that the LHC needed to get
things moving." Almost immediately, Villegas moved the board into
executive session, for 13 minutes.

However, for all the talk
of Bernero’s ability to stack the board against Stuchell, there have
been questions raised from outside of Lansing about the dealings within
the LHC.

In April 2008, the federal Office of the Inspector General
released an audit in which inspector Heath Wolfe found that the
commission had misused HUD funds when it created a limited liability
company to purchase part of the School for the Blind and build Oliver
Gardens, a non-federal senior housing project in Lansing.

The commission maintained it didn’t intentionally violate HUD regulations, saying its legal counsel approved the ventures.

severity of the offense is debatable, according to one source, but the
government treats it seriously. Johnson said he was made aware of the
report while serving on the board. In Stuchell’s contract, there is a
clause allowing the board to fire the executive director for
"misappropriation of commission funds or property."

If the board
removed Stuchell without cause, the commission is then obligated to pay
a severance of one week’s pay for each year of service.

board is now looking for a "dynamic" director, Villegas said. Some
former colleagues in the housing community were caught off guard by his

"I am so surprised," said Lynne Martinez, executive
director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition. "I had no idea he
was resigning."