Longtime public servant Gwen Hamilton was appointed on Thursday to succeed Walter Monsour as the leader of the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, a public agency fighting to stay afloat amid its financial dire straits.
The Redevelopment Authority board approved her in an interim capacity, with a salary of $75,000, which is less than one-third of what Monsour was earning.
Monsour had a $265,000 base salary with a $100,000 benefits package, which became an issue of contention for critics as agency officials announced in recent months that the authority is out of money. Monsour’s compensation made up more than one-third of the authority’s operating budget.
Like Monsour, Hamilton has worked with Mayor-President Kip Holden as an administrative officer. While in the Mayor-President’s Office, she oversaw the Office of Community Development, a department with goals similar to the Redevelopment Authority in that it provides services and programs to improve low-income housing and targets blighted communities.
Hamilton stepped down from the Mayor-President’s Office in 2013 to do consulting work. She previously has served as an administrator for both the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
The board said it would revisit Hamilton’s compensation package after three months and could potentially increase her salary to as high as $100,000 per year.
“You’re just the person we need for the job,” board Chairman John Noland told Hamilton at the meeting.
She officially starts work Dec. 1.
The Redevelopment Authority was created by the Legislature in 2007 and is tasked with eliminating blighted areas and increasing affordable housing options in low-income areas.
The agency is best known for its ongoing projects in Ardendale, formerly called Smiley Heights, which is a 30-acre mixed-use development northeast of Baton Rouge Community College. The Redevelopment Authority also is trying to turn the old Entergy building on Government Street into another mixed-use development.
In September, Monsour announced the Redevelopment Authority was out of money, both to take on additional redevelopment projects but also for simple operational needs like paying salaries.
The board subsequently voted to ask the Metro Council to appropriate $3 million to the agency in the city-parish budget, a move that put it at odds with Holden.
Holden responded with hostility toward Monsour, his former friend and close political adviser. He said the Redevelopment Authority hasn’t proved its worth and insinuated that Monsour hadn’t been an effective enough leader to get the agency off its feet. Holden also publicly criticized Monsour’s large salary.
As the feud simmered between the two, many community leaders aligned with the Redevelopment Authority grew quiet.
Businessman Steve Hicks, who described himself as Monsour’s best friend, spoke out in Monsour’s defense on Thursday, chastising the members of the community for failing to publicly support Monsour over the past month as his reputation was called into question.
“He’s earned the gratitude and thanks from the very fortunate (people) in our community who, for whatever reason, chose not to stand up in his defense to the scurrilous personal and political attack on Walter and his family,” said Hicks, founder and president of Provident Resources Group, which Monsour sits on as a board member. “To Walter … I say, ‘Job well done.’ And to the others I say, ‘Have you treated Walter the way you would have wanted to be treated?’”
Monsour was not present at the board meeting and did not respond to a request for comment.
He submitted his letter of resignation earlier this month, following a report by The Advocate that his son’s law firm received about $190,000 in contracts with firms that received public funds from the authority. The organization initially requested an opinion from the state Ethics Board about the propriety of the arrangement but withdrew the request before an opinion was issued.
Noland and the other board members followed Hicks’ lead and offered their gratitude and support to Monsour.
“I’ve never for a moment questioned the motivation, ethical behavior or dignity of Walter Monsour,” Noland said.
Moving forward, the agency still needs to secure funding.
Hamilton said she is going to work on educating the community about the important work of the agency.
“The value of the RDA has to be permeated through the community,” she said.
At this point, Hamilton said, she’s not sure whether the city-parish is a “viable option” for funding.
Noland said in an interview that he is turning his energy to the next mayoral administration, because it seems apparent that Holden is not going to commit funds to the authority during his tenure.
He said the authority could cease to exist if a future mayoral administration continues to reject dedicated funding for the agency.