Stirgus left VHA commission no choice

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 24, 2009

Few people can claim near-universal admiration in a community. Jim Stirgus Sr., who served as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent for 30 years before becoming director of an orderly Vicksburg Housing Authority for nearly 21 more, achieved that status.

That’s why his firing last week by new members of the housing commission was shocking to some.

It was, however, a timely response to the unfolding reports of informality and corner-cutting at the VHA, giving the appearance the agency was operating with favoritism to insiders, and, more particularly, Stirgus’ decision to attribute everything to “politics.”

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No doubt there are elements of personal enmity at play. Stirgus had supported incumbent Mayor Laurence Leyens and now supports Democratic nominee Paul Winfield heading into the June 2 election. Stirgus’ disenchantment with Leyens was fed by his disenchantment with Police Chief Tommy Moffett, whom Leyens supports. The VHA is an independent agency, receiving no city funds. The city’s only role is to appoint commission members who, in turn, hire a director. And it was four directors appointed by city authorities in February who fired Stirgus.

More significant than the personalities involved are what appear to be facts. Valuable items stockpiled at a VHA manager’s home, with the manager’s name on purchase orders matching serial numbers. The manager himself, Charles Jones, fired and facing drug trafficking and embezzlement charges. An inquiry into whether Jones was allowed to create a front company to funnel $100,000 in VHA contract payments to himself. The sale of surplus VHA vehicles to employees or their kin. Stacks of bills, past and ongoing, being paid with no documentation of work performed or services provided.

This is the type of corruption that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides most VHA funds, gets busted for every once in a while. Based on his reputation, there is no reason to believe Stirgus would tolerate illegal activity if he knew about it and there are no allegations the now-former director participated in or gained anything from the transactions being investigated.

What is clear is that Stirgus has resisted or at least declined to actively participate in reviews, treating them as trifling matters and saying all operations can withstand impartial scrutiny. For his failure to cooperate, the commission acted correctly in firing him.

Stirgus’ many acts of leadership and compassion in this community stand on their own. The hundreds of people, especially young people, for whom he has been a guide and inspiration for more than 50 years, did not misplace their trust. It is equally important, however, that the VHA be fully accountable for how it is operated and how the public’s money is spent. The new commission must press on.