Raleigh Housing Authority director's time off needs close scrutiny

December 25, 2013 

It turns out that Raleigh Housing Director Steve Beam, who has a challenging job in managing 5,700 public housing units and a $50 million annual budget, also is quite the manager when it comes to card tricks and other magic. He is the author of several books on the subject and a sought-after speaker for conventions. He even has a production company related to an avocation that has been a passion for everyone from Johnny Carson to David Copperfield.

We don’t know whether Beam has any Houdini-like qualifications to wrestle out of chains or make himself disappear. But he has been vanishing from his job for as much as 11 weeks a year in time off or compensatory time. And that ought to concern the members of his oversight board, which doesn’t appear to be doing a lot of overseeing.

Earlier News & Observer stories reported that Beam is in a select group of commission and agency heads who are handsomely compensated relative to others in similar positions. Beam earns $240,000 plus up to $280,000 with bonuses and benefits. The stories noted that Beam makes more than the Raleigh city manager and the Wake County manager, both of whom supervise far larger budgets and many more people. But his board barely shrugged at that.

Beam no doubt works hard and long hours and probably earns compensatory time in the process, but that’s not unusual for other officials who don’t take nearly the comp time he does. Eleven weeks? That should have gotten someone’s attention long ago. It just doesn’t build confidence in an agency when its leader is gone so much, passionately devoted to a hobby that’s clearly more than a hobby.

In fact, one friend interviewed in an article in a magicians’ publication reckoned that, “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.”

The comment wasn’t meant to be critical, and lots of people harbor dreams of life after retirement in which they’ll enlist in exciting new adventures.

But Beam’s explanations for his arrangement and all this time off are inadequate. In fact, he declined to be interviewed about it by The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell. Likewise, his board chair, Kyle Dilday, also would not submit to an interview. Instead, they offered email comment, which afforded them the opportunity to sculpt their responses more carefully. That is not good behavior for public officials who ought to be willing to explain their actions anytime, anywhere.

The issue is this: Can Beam do his job properly while taking 11 weeks off? Were the Housing Authority a private industry, a board of directors would be within its rights to set up whatever compensation it liked. But this agency is funded mostly by the federal government – and thus by the taxpayers. The bar for supervision, for setting up strict rules of performance, is higher. Ultimately, this agency reports to the public.

Credit Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane with recognizing there is a problem here. She said she would demand a report on the practice of using so much compensatory time – a refreshing response given the reluctance on the part of Beam and Dilday to be more candid.

This arrangement is unsatisfactory. No matter what a wizard Beam may be at managing his time, he’s hurting his agency’s credibility by not being mindful of how his large chunks of time off might be perceived and, for that matter, might affect the efficiency and effectiveness of his agency.

It’s also disturbing that board members have not been more curious about this arrangement, assuming they knew about it. If they did know and questioned nothing, then they weren’t doing their duty. If they didn’t know, that’s even more of a problem.

Clearly, this agency needs to establish rules that will tighten restrictions on time off for vacation and compensatory time. The board needs to set up close ways to oversee how those restrictions are followed. And for his part, Beam needs to acknowledge that things got out of hand here and that he intends to take change things. His first duty is to those in need of housing and to the government and taxpayers who provide the $50 million a year to fund this agency.

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