Evette Hester

Evette Hester 

Evette Hester may well be the best candidate to take over as executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans. But public housing residents will apparently have to take the HANO board’s word for it, at least until she’s officially hired.

HANO’s board is taking the highly unusual step of shielding its selection process — right down to the identities and resumes of the other applicants — until it completes negotiations to bring Hester, a veteran housing official who now heads the Montgomery, Alabama Housing Authority, on board. This is despite a state law that clearly says that such information should be available to the public.

To justify its secrecy, the board is citing a state attorney general’s opinion and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rule that seems to contradict the Louisiana law. State law says that the name of each applicant for a public position of authority or a public position with policymaking duties, the qualifications of such an applicant related to such position, and any relevant employment history or experience of such an applicant shall be available for public inspection, examination, copying, or reproduction.

Yet HANO refuses to even name the 10 other applicants, including the three other semi-finalists and the second finalist. This group was culled from a search conducted by a private firm, which contacted 29 potential leaders for the agency and screened 16.

The choice of HANO’s new executive director is a big deal for the city. Assuming she completes the process, Hester would oversee an agency that spent years under federal receivership due to mismanagement and corruption. She will be the second locally appointed leader, replacing Gregg Fortner, whose five-year contract expires this month.

She will take the reins at a time when the city is grappling with an affordable housing shortage. Fortner attempted to address the issue by redeveloping some 200 “scattered sites” under HANO’s control, a process that has been criticized as too languid. Hester says she will analyze the initiative and “see how best to reposition those properties.”

The agency, which has a $201 million budget and serves more than 20,000 families, has also had to contend with reduced federal funding.

The HANO board contends that Hester is the best person for that job, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell has also offered her blessing.

Hopefully, Hester is the best candidate. But New Orleanians shouldn’t have to take anyone’s word for it.