Mass Housing hires new chief in 10 minutes
Lightning-fast action called smart succession planning
It took less than 10 minutes for the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency to name a new executive director last month.
The authority’s board convened at 2 p.m. on Jan. 12. After approving the minutes from the last meeting and welcoming a new member, the board voted to go into executive session “to discuss strategies with respect to personnel negotiations.” The board members emerged at 2:10 and voted unanimously to replace executive director Tom Gleason with the agency’s chief financial officer, Timothy Sullivan. Gleason will remain on the payroll through the end of the year, serving as executive director emeritus.
“While we were in executive session, we heard from Tom Gleason that he intends to retire at the end of 2016, and he has provided us with a great opportunity to build a strong transition plan of leadership at Mass Housing,” said board chairman Michael Dirrane, according to the minutes of the meeting. “Towards that end, I have a motion that I would like to make for the board’s consideration to appoint Timothy Sullivan executive director of Mass Housing.”
That was it. No nationwide search. No search at all. In fact, the hiring decision wasn’t even on the board’s agenda that day. There was just a reference about going into executive session for “a negotiation” pursuant to a section of the Open Meeting Law allowing private discussions “to conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel or to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.”
Eric Gedstad, a spokesman for the authority, said the board acted quickly to appoint Sullivan because he is such a strong, well-qualified candidate and board members wanted to make the transition as seamless as possible. He called Sullivan’s appointment smart succession planning. “It was because they had a great candidate and they wanted that continuity,” he said.
Gedstad said some but not all of the board members were aware of the situation prior to the board meeting.
Sullivan spent 15 years at Mass Housing, running the rental lending business and serving as deputy director of finance and chief financial officer. He previously served as the state’s budget director and worked at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Two members of the Baker administration, Kristen Lepore, the governor’s secretary of administration and finance, and Chrystal Kornegay, the undersecretary of housing and economic affairs, serve on the Mass Housing board and voted for the change in leadership. Asked about the appropriateness of appointing a new executive director without a search, Lepore and Kornegay’s office issued statements within minutes of each other saying the two officials had no reservations about supporting Sullivan. Neither statement addressed the way in which he was selected.
“I was proud to vote for Tim Sullivan for executive director. I have known Tim for 20 years and there is no other person more qualified for this role,” Lepore said in her statement. “The board recognized Tim’s significant contributions over the past 13 years and the importance of maintaining stability in its senior management to further the agency’s success.”
Paul McMorrow, a spokesman for housing and economic development, said Sullivan’s years of experience at the agency made him “uniquely qualified to lead Mass Housing forward.”
Sullivan’s salary will be $255,000 as executive director, up from $197,932 last year, according to the state’s Open Checkbook website. Gleason earned $195,736 in 2015, according to the website. It’s unclear what he will earn as executive director emeritus.
The quick change at the top of Mass Housing is unusual for a public agency. The Massachusetts Port Authority hired a new executive director in September 2012, but the authority’s search for a new leader began in February 2011, more than a year before. More than 40 candidates from inside and outside the country were considered, according to Massport.
A special commission on state authorities issued a report in 2009 recommending a number of changes in the way authorities pay and hire top officials. The commission was created in the wake of furor over an attempt by former governor Deval Patrick to place a state senator in a $175,000 post at a state authority.
One of the commission’s recommendations was to use a search process to fill top management vacancies. The report called for “objective, merit-based searches, from the appropriate local, regional, or national ‘catchment’ area to find the best qualified candidate. Selecting well qualified local candidates is not a problem; failing to compare them to rigorous recruitment competition and merit-based analysis is a problem.”Stephen Crosby, who chaired that commission and is currently the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, said a number of the group’s recommendations did become law, but the hiring directive did not. As a result, he said, there is no restriction on how authorities select their top employees.
Gedstad said Mass Housing did not break any rules in moving Sullivan into the top spot at the agency. “They did what they were allowed to do,” he said. “We think it’s all upside.”