When the Housing Authority of Maricopa County began the hunt for a new executive director, it had some specifics in mind.
Its hire would be running the county's public housing program — no small task. Naturally, the ideal candidate would be educated, with at least a bachelor's degree, and have at least seven years of "progressive experience in a highly responsible administrative position." Also required: someone with vision, strong financial acumen, and, while politically astute, "apolitical" in nature.
So how in the heck did they end up hiring Doug Lingner?
This guy is totally political — his most recent job was as a Phoenix city councilman. He's got no college degree and no real experience with finance or housing. (Before he was elected to the council, he was a tile setter.) And though a councilman's job can be a pressure cooker, the duties are not administrative — Lingner had a staff of four and a budget of about $40,000. In Phoenix, it's the city manager who does the grunt work.
Now Lingner will be supervising a staff of 52, with an annual budget of $20 million. He'll be running the Section 8 program for Valley residents and managing 790 rental units. Low-income families will depend on his skills to make sure they can get affordable housing in a timely manner.
This country is in a near-meltdown over housing. As all the best and brightest people at investment banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and even Congress have demonstrated, this is not simple stuff.
And now, more than ever, people are losing their homes. They have no choice but to rely on the government's largesse.
This is not the time to put an amateur at the helm, even if he's politically connected. Especially if he is politically connected.
I want to be clear: The problem is not simply that Doug Lingner doesn't have a college degree. If we really want to run a meritocracy, we must be willing to be make exceptions for candidates who are well qualified but not necessarily well educated.
The problem is that absolutely nothing in Lingner's background suggests he's ready for a job like this.
Before term limits ended his 12-year tenure at City Hall last fall, Lingner was widely viewed as a genial lightweight. His own constituents tried to recall him, twice. According to some residents I spoke with, Lingner was constantly pushing high-density projects down their throats. He was willing to carry water for well-connected developers, they said, but he had no time for their concerns.
Randy Jones, an activist who lives in Lingner's district, says that when he sounded the alarm about Lingner's being up for the Housing Authority post, "I got quite a few e-mails from people saying, 'We tried to work with this guy, but he was just non-existent, a no-show. You couldn't get him to call back.'"
And it's not just neighborhood activists who felt Lingner was frequently AWOL. Even the Arizona Republic, which rarely meets an elected official it doesn't like, criticized him for his inaccessibility. "Every time I've called his office, not only was he 'out,' but no one knew exactly when he would be 'in' again," wrote columnist Tony Sommer in 2005, noting that Lingner hadn't updated his district newsletter in more than two years. "It appears he's been 'out' a lot lately."
Suffice it to say, I'm not the only person who wonders what the heck Housing Authority commissioners were thinking. My public-records request revealed that the agency received 50 e-mails from Lingner's former constituents, opposing his choice. Records also show that the Housing Authority's own staffers strongly preferred the other finalist.
Here's what happened. Recruiters got 54 applicants and named three as finalists. But one finalist dropped out before the interviews because she'd apparently taken a job at Arizona State University.
That left Lingner and William "Bill" Wilkins.
Wilkins has spent the past eight years running the East St. Louis Housing Authority, which is roughly twice as big as the one in Maricopa County. Before that, he ran a smaller agency in Iowa and worked for a housing non-profit in Washington, D.C. He has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in public administration.
In July, before the commissioners made their decision, Housing Authority staff met with Lingner and Wilkins. The agency's recruiter later summarized the staff's feelings in a memo.
"In general, staff was in close agreement relative to their overall impression of each candidate," the recruiter wrote. "Each said they were most impressed by Mr. Wilkins, citing his extensive housing experience and perceived leadership ability. Staff acknowledged that Mr. Lingner's local contacts would be an asset for [the Housing Authority] but all feel his lack of direct housing authority executive management experience was a serious drawback that weighed heavily on their consideration."
Or, as one staffer concluded to the recruiter, "It seemed like he talked a lot but didn't say very much."
Yet the commissioners decided to hire Lingner.
Richard Cole, the board chairman, didn't return my calls for comment. Nor did the recruiter, California-based Ralph Andersen & Associates. Lingner called me back, but I missed the call — and when I called back 10 minutes later, he was gone.
I did manage to connect with Bill Wilkins. As he confirmed for me on Monday, he was interested in the job until the end.
"Was I serious about the job? Absolutely," he said. "Am I upset that they didn't hire me? No. The one thing I can tell you: It doesn't necessarily matter all the time that you're the best person identified by personnel. It's about what is the best fit. I don't take it personally."
It's nice to hear such a gracious loser. But I don't think this was about the best fit. I think it was about the fix being in.
Lingner may have been hated by some of his politically active constituents, but he was the developers' go-to guy. In 2003, he raised $91,000 for his re-election campaign, much of it from developers, real estate investors, and their attorneys. The same group came through with another $24,000 in 2007 to head off a threatened recall from neighborhood activists in Laveen.
They had good reason to show him support. Lingner voted in favor of Donald Trump's plan for a high-rise at 26th Street and Camelback Road. He voted to allow a developer to build four houses on the side of a hill in Dreamy Draw, despite the city's decades-old promise to preserve the land.
In the most egregious example, Laveen residents say he pushed through a much-loathed rezoning request last year at the behest of former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson. (The land in question had been zoned for one home per acre, and the Laveen Village Planning Commission unanimously opposed Johnson's request to throw out the old zoning and allow nearly 20 apartments per acre. Not so Lingner.) The project is now facing a citizens referendum.
After Lingner left the council, he even started a company to "assist developers in reducing the permitting process," according to his résumé. While he's never bothered to register as a lobbyist, I've heard he's been something of an advocate for certain projects over at City Hall.
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SHOW ME HOW
All that worries me.
It's not just that Lingner is under-qualified. It's that I worry about where his allegiances lie: with the low-income people he'll need to serve, or with developers who hope to unload their white elephants during this real estate downturn?
Only time will tell on that one. And what the heck? Maybe Doug Lingner will prove me wrong. Maybe he'll be the best thing that's happened to the Housing Authority in decades.
For the sake of Maricopa County's Section 8 residents, I certainly hope so.