Raleigh Housing Authority head uses comp time to support magic hobby

ccampbell@newsobserver.comDecember 21, 2013 

  • Humor in the cards

    Fellow magicians credit Raleigh Housing Authority director Steve Beam with incorporating humor into his magic act. At a recent convention, Beam won praise for showing off a routine he calls the “Bigger Testicles Card Trick.”

    Beam has also posted several magic-related comedy bits on his website, stevebeam.com. One of the articles, which Beam copyrighted twice in the 1990s and continues to display on his site, is titled: “A Few Reasons Why Magicians Prefer Cards over Women.”

    The list includes:

    • “A pack of cards doesn’t mind if you fall asleep in the middle of handling it. There’s no jail time if you perform a Card Stab.”

    • “Licking a woman won’t make her stick to your forehead.”

    • “Any time you wish, you can spread cards across a tabletop and turn them over.”

    • “A pack of cards doesn’t require much closet space.”

    • “If a trick only takes two minutes, nobody complains.”

RALEIGH

During the past four years, Raleigh Housing Authority Director Steve Beam has taken as much as 11 weeks off work annually with pay, some of it to pursue an unusual side business: magic.

Beam – who oversees 5,700 public housing units for low-income residents and an annual budget of $50 million – is also an award-winning magician who specializes in card tricks. Through his business called Trapdoor Productions, Beam has published eight volumes of how-to books about card tricks, and he appears at multiple magic conventions each year.

Several of those convention appearances occurred while Beam was off work using compensatory time. According to personnel records provided by the housing authority, Beam has taken more than 20 comp days a year from 2009 through 2012. Timesheets show he accrued the time by working beyond business hours, logging eight- or nine-hour workdays instead of the standard 7.5.

Working beyond normal work hours isn’t considered unusual for executives in government. Beam is paid $240,000 in salary; bonuses, longevity payments and car allowances have brought his total annual compensation as high as $280,000.

Beam is one of the highest-paid housing directors in the country. His pay is higher than the managers of Raleigh and Wake County, who oversee much larger budgets and staffs.

His comp time comes in addition to annual vacation that ranges from 18 to 30 days, plus roughly a week of sick days each year. Combined, Beam was out of the office for at least 54 days a year in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – a total equal to nearly 11 work weeks off each year.

Beam, 55, declined to discuss the magic business and time off, but in an emailed statement he said his “business/hobby” doesn’t interfere with his work at the housing authority.

“There has never been any suggestion to me during my tenure at RHA that I needed to stop engaging in my lifelong (since age 11) hobby/business as a condition for retaining the job, or that the job/agency was suffering as a result,” Beam wrote. “My hobby/business has nothing to do with the housing authority. It is conducted on my personal time. There is no balance necessary as they are mutually exclusive.”

In January, the housing authority’s board granted Beam more vacation time. He had been earning 24 days of vacation each year – standard agency policy for an employee with more than 20 years of service. The board’s move will increase that to 30 days, or six work weeks, each year.

Board chairman Kyle Dilday, a retirement community administrator who was appointed in 2006 by then-mayor Charles Meeker, declined to be interviewed but voiced support for the extra vacation in a brief email.

“The board felt it was an appropriate way to reward Mr. Beam for his many years of excellent and dedicated service to RHA and the community we serve,” Dilday wrote.

While the city allows for comp time, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she’s never encountered a public-sector manager who’s out of the office 11 weeks a year. She wants to know what the housing authority’s board, which she is responsible for appointing, thinks of Beam’s absences. She said she plans to request a report on the practice.

“The question is, do they feel that even with that amount of time gone, the performance of the Raleigh Housing Authority is still really everything it should be?” she said.

McFarlane has been mayor for two years but has made no new appointments to the board. The housing authority is a public agency that gets the bulk of its money from the federal government.

Beam is among a select group of public officials across North Carolina who receive big pay and benefits to run authorities, commissions or institutions that are overseen by political appointees and draw little public scrutiny, a recent News & Observer series revealed.

In earlier interviews, Dilday said Beam’s perks are well-earned because of his 17-year record leading the agency: receiving 26 clean audits in a row and demolishing 1,000 of the city’s worst public housing apartments while building several new complexes, for a net gain of 2,000 units.

“I cannot fathom trying to replace Mr. Beam,” Dilday said earlier this year.

A lifelong passion

Beam’s dual careers as a card trick magician and housing executive were chronicled in 2006 by The Linking Ring, a trade magazine for magicians. Beam first discovered the magic of playing cards when an uncle showed him some shuffling techniques, he told the magazine.

While in college, he co-owned a magic shop with several friends before selling his share after graduation to take what he called “a real job.”

But Beam continued to develop and perform magic tricks as a hobby, and he eventually edited a trade journal called The Trapdoor for about 15 years.

According to his magic website, Beam was writing nearly 900 pages a year about magic. During much of The Trapdoor’s run, he was serving as the Raleigh Housing Authority’s finance director by day, including tumultuous years when the agency was reeling from the carbon-monoxide deaths of two residents at Walnut Terrace.

In 1996, the housing authority implemented a policy requiring all employees to provide written disclosure of any outside employment. The rule allows workers to hold outside jobs or businesses “so long as such employment does not conflict with the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s job at RHA and so long as the facilities and equipment of RHA are not used.”

In his disclosure form, Beam wrote that he had owned Trapdoor Productions since 1979, noting his work “writing, lecturing and performing” while publishing the quarterly journal and a book series.

“This is basically a hobby which has gone awry,” he wrote, attaching a “Wizard of Id” comic strip that pokes fun at a magician.

‘A means to an end’

A friend interviewed in the Linking Ring article said that magic – not public housing work – is Beam’s true calling.

“Clearly, his day job is a means to an end as Beam slowly works his way toward retirement he is setting things up so he can continue to indulge his real passion – traveling the world with a deck of cards and four thimbles,” Mick Ayres, who was described as a Disney entertainer, told the magazine.

Beam says he doesn’t recall Ayres’ comment in the article, a copy of which is posted on Beam’s website. “I have not personally expressed” the sentiment, he said.

In the emailed statement, he said he prioritizes housing authority work over his magic. “I have always put RHA first,” he wrote. “Immediately after I was appointed interim executive director in 1993, I canceled a series of overseas lectures that were to begin a month later.”

Beam also stopped publishing his trade journal a year or so after becoming director because “the deadlines could have potentially interfered with the unpredictable nature of the new job,” he said. He added that he doesn’t perform outside magicians’ conferences because a corporate client booking a magic show might later have business with the housing authority, posing a potential conflict of interest.

Magic posts at work

During one week, though, Beam took time out of his workdays to post on a magic forum.

During the week of March 26-30, 2007, Beam was the featured guest on an online forum called The Magic Cafe, answering questions from magicians across the globe.

Time stamps on Beam’s posts, which are still archived on the site, indicate several posts were made during business hours: 8:49 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 12:48 p.m.

Beam’s timecards at the housing authority show he took no time off that week; he even logged a 9.5-hour day on March 30. A time stamp on The Magic Cafe shows he posted at 5:35 p.m. that day.

In an email, Beam admits he posted to the forum during the business day, but he said the 120 posts he made over the week were outside the hours he was working. “I went to great effort to post before work, after work, and on my lunch hours,” he wrote.

Beam provided records showing the times of all 120 forum posts, which show he took an unusual approach to lunch breaks that week. On March 29, he skipped his lunch break in order to post twice on the site, at 8:49 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. The following day, he split his lunch hour into three short segments, logging on at 8:42 a.m., 12:11 p.m. and 2:23 p.m.

On March 27, Beam’s records show he spent about an hour on the forum from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m., but he said that was because he’d been at an hourlong breakfast meeting before business hours.

Comp time for conventions

Much of Beam’s magic takes place on vacation and comp days, when he travels to magic conventions around the country and sometimes overseas.

Each year, during the last week of April, Beam travels to Batavia, N.Y., where he teaches card tricks to fellow magicians at a conference called Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolic. He took vacation time for the event this year, but in 2012 he used three days of comp time he’d accrued by working outside business hours, including weekends. He was named the convention’s guest of honor in 2011.

He attended several other magic events using comp time in recent years, including the 2011 Winter Carnival of Magic in Tennessee and the 2010 Abbott Magic Closeup Convention in Michigan, according to personnel records and online accounts of the events.

Records show Beam accrues comp time by working occasional weekends to attend housing conferences, but some of the time is logged in 30-minute increments when he works more than 7.5 hours in a day.

He then takes the time off in full-day increments, ranging from 20 days off in 2011 to 23.5 days off in 2010. By Nov. 1, he had taken 14 comp days this year.

Beam defended the practice in an email, noting that he’s frequently in contact with the office when he’s off. He said it was “intentionally misleading” to say he was out of the office 11 weeks per year because the comp time was earned by working extra time. He also said he conducts business when he is listed as being on vacation or comp time.

“Nearly all of my ‘days off’ include calls with attorneys, staff, board (members), congressmen or other executive directors, and none of this time counts toward compensatory time,” he wrote. “My time off is approved by the board. I have canceled or declined opportunities when they conflicted with RHA duties.”

No comp time in Durham

Federal wage and hour laws are strict on how hourly employees are to be compensated for overtime hours. But for salaried employees, employers have wide discretion on whether and how to allow managers to make up for extra time worked.

Many government agency executives don’t take comp days, though like Beam they frequently work extra hours outside the standard workday. Housing authority directors in Durham and Charlotte said they’ve taken no comp days in 2012 or 2013. They’ve also taken significantly less vacation time than Beam.

Dallas Parks, who heads public housing in Durham, took 15 vacation days off in 2012 and 18 so far this year. He said he’s never taken a comp day even though his workdays sometimes stretch until 8 p.m.

“I don’t believe in comp time for executives,” he said, adding that most of the housing authority’s salaried senior managers “work beyond 40 hours every week, all the time.”

The Raleigh Housing Authority has no restrictions on how comp time can be used, according to finance director Hilda Holdsclaw. Beam’s contract makes no mention of comp time.

In Raleigh city government, which is separate from the housing authority, salaried employees can bank up to 70 comp hours at a time, but their managers must approve when the time off is used.

Dilday, the board chairman, said he has no problem with Beam’s time off.

“When Mr. Beam is not in the office due to work-related issues or personal time off, the agency is being managed by the deputy executive director, who is quite capable of handling issues that arise,” he wrote in an email. “Likewise, Mr. Beam, like other exempt managers, is always available by phone for any emergency.”

But Octavia Rainey, a community activist who’s a frequent critic of the housing authority, said an agency head such as Beam should expect to put in long hours.

“His job is to be there when nobody else is there – that’s why he makes the big salary to compensate for having to be there on the weekend,” she said.

“He’s filling in the extra time so he can go do his magic tricks. Why are we compensating him for that?”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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