Art Howe, hired almost two years ago, to be the city’s first Housing Safety administrator, was fired by his boss, Michael Russell, a few weeks ago according to sources familiar with the situation. The position was created in response to the devastating 20-24 Noyes Street fire in which six young lives were lost over a Halloween Weekend – November 1, 2014.
Contacted by both email and telephone. Mr. Russell told mhn.com in a telephone interview late this afternoon, he had no comment on his firing of Mr. Howe. When asked if the City intended to replace Mr. Howe, Mr. Russell hung up on mhn.com. MHN.com immediaely tried to reconnect with Russell, but he did not return the call.
Howe, with a resume of over thirty-seven (37) years in the field was the fire chief in Ipswich, MA., served for 20 years as an inspector for the National Fire Protection Association and more recently owned his own company, Howe Safety Services.
When Mr. Howe was hired by city manager Jon Jennings two years ago in September, he was heralded as someone well-qualified for the position who could hit the ground running. Ian Housal, hired as an environmental advisor for the city, was demoted from that position. Rather, he assisted Howe in setting up computer systems and procedures for the long-term – utilizing skills that probably no one in Russell’s department possesses. Housal left late last year for a town manager position in another Maine location. Mr. Howe’s assistant walked off the job this past Friday as well. Those changes leave the office unstaffed by people with original knowledge of its operations, systems and some of the glitches the office encountered in its first year.
For mhn.com all this begs the question: When Art Howe was employed by the city, was he informed this position was only a temporary one and that as soon as he set up complicated office systems and procedures, he’d be dismissed by Mike Russell?
As of Monday, the Housing Safety Office was intermittently staffed by people from the Permitting and Inspections Office on the third floor of city hall; John Rioux, specifically. (Rioux was defensive and adversarial when mhn.com learned that Rioux was now occupying Art Howe’s office earlier this week.) An employee at the Human Resources office at city hall said the office had not received a request to post a “position available” information sheet as of Monday; yesterday. Meanwhile, the Housing Safety office continues to collect income derived from fees from the many thousands of landlords owning rental units in Portland. It’s a a cash cow for city hall. In addition, the revenue is minus salaries of two administrators – Housal and Howe – improving that bottom line significantly.
Mr. Russell is the Director of Permitting and Inspections office for the city at an annual salary of $102,000. This is a position Mr. Russell has held for less than a year. He was promoted to this position last June in one of numerous efforts over the nine years since mhn.com has existed to make this famously inefficient office more efficient. Over the years mhn. has heard an overwhelming number of complaints about this office for its slowness in processing applications, its poor record keeping, disorganization, poor attitude toward small, start-up businesses in the area, that it isn’t public-friendly, and that some clients get different answers to the same question, for example. However, none of these sources are willing to “go on the record” for fear of retribution by the city.
The position of Administrator and office of Housing Safety were created as a result of a recommendation by a city task force as a consequence of the Noyes Street fire in which six young people died. It was the deadliest fire in decades in Portland and received national attention because of the sheer enormity of it. The lengthy task force, convened by former interim-city manager Sheila Hill-Christian, was criticized by mhn.com for not permitting any renters to be part of the task force.
Gregory Nisbett, the owner of the property on Noyes Street has been in court defending himself against lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the city has been interviewing for the newly created position of Clearinghouse Director for a clearinghouse office for the immigrant population at city hall.