Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority chief resigns over employee dispute over payroll

Heidi Marston of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority speaks with the media following a press conference in August 2019. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority official tendered her resignation on Monday, citing friction with the organization’s board of directors over her unilateral decision to raise salaries for her lowestpaid employees.

Heidi Marston, executive director of LAHSA, leaves at a pivotal time as the city and county elections – with the resolution of a years-long legal fight against homelessness in Los Angeles – could change the region’s strategy for helping its homeless population.

Several members of LAHSA’s board of directors said they were puzzled and disappointed by Marston’s sudden decision. Others said they were discouraged.

“As a friend, I asked him to stay,” said Reverend Andy Bales, president and CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, who was appointed to the commission in November. “She had clearly made up her mind.”

In a letter to the board, Marston said his resignation would be effective May 27, and in a statement, LAHSA commission chair Jacqueline Wagoner said “interim leadership will be appointed shortly.”

Marston started served in the role on an interim basis in 2019 and oversaw the agency, which is a joint authority between the city and county of Los Angeles, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She was instrumental in coordinating and setting up a network of rented hotels where homeless people vulnerable to coronavirus could stay in single rooms.

The organization she leads is in a difficult position, without the power to build housing or shelters or many tools that help people get off the streets. Much of his influence comes from doling out money to nonprofits that run shelters and hiring outreach workers who fan out across the region to help the homeless.

Some of these service providers worry that the turnover at the top will complicate their jobs at a time when great soul-searching is occurring on LAHSA’s bureaucratic structure and how it interacts with an alphabet soup of city, county and federal agencies. Several competing visions for reforming the agency, including moving its large outreach staff to a new departmental entity and dissolve it completely, are gaining ground.

“When you remove the head of LAHSA, does that create chaos when we need stability more than ever?” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, executive director of PATH, an East Hollywood-based, statewide homeless service provider that has helped raise awareness throughout the city. “That’s a good guess.”

In his resignation letter, Marston said LAHSA employees earn as little as $33,000 and the organization therefore experiences huge turnover. In March 2021, Marston raised the annual salaries of 196 LAHSA employees to $50,000 and froze compensation for the organization’s 10 highest-paid employees, according to the letter.

“Since making this decision, I have been accused of undermining ‘management’s position’ by renegotiating LAHSA’s new union contract,” she wrote in a letter to the board. announcing his planned departure.

“My decision…responded to the ongoing need – as well as the pressing need at this moment in history – to align our commitments and values ​​at all levels of our work.”

In the past, Marston has criticized Los Angeles officials for focusing too much on erasing the visible signs of homelessness — with changes to his anti-camping ordinance or the clearing large encampments in places like Echo Park Lake – and fail to more adequately address the root causes of the crisis.

In an interview on Monday, she said there was no reason her announcement came this week, more than a year after the increases took effect. She said the pay dispute reflects her growing frustration with financial and governance constraints that impede LAHSA’s mission to end homelessness — and her personal dedication to racial and social equity.

“You know, at some point when we talk about these equity issues, we have to be able to make quick changes, and there’s very little LAHSA has the ability to do that.” she declared.

“In this role, I faced the impossible dilemma of representing and leading the best homeless services in Los Angeles, while being tasked with silently adopting policies and funding decisions that deviate from these best practices,” she wrote in her letter to the board.

Hark Dietz applauded Marston’s willingness “to call out the systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness”. Hark Dietz has previously said resources are often distributed in a political way that is much less effective in helping the homeless population.

Still, as one of LA’s largest homeless service providers, Hark Dietz was critical in some ways of how Marston raised staff salaries. The result, she said, was that LAHSA ended up poaching many employees from her organization.

Looking back, she would have liked to see LAHSA talk to providers and come up with a plan so they could raise salaries at the same time.

Organization monitoring commission, which is made up of appointees from city and county politicians, questioned the unilateral decision. Several sources familiar with the matter told The Times that the board was not opposed to the salary increase, but rather should play a role in approving the raises.

Informed by email in advance of the March 2021 salary increases, but after staff were briefed, commissioners initially raised no concerns. But in January this year they questioned the decision after it became an issue in negotiations with the employees’ union, SEIU, leading to a pay rise on top of the new base salary.

The commission’s management committee has sought clarification from Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. In a February notice obtained by the Times, the lawyers concluded that the increases constituted a revision of the union contract that should have been approved by the commission.

“The increase in compensation paid to LAHSA employees does not appear to be within the Commission’s delegated authority to the Executive Director,” the memo said.

Commissioners interviewed by The Times denied seeking to reprimand Marston. For her part, Marston was not worried about being fired.

“There was no disagreement; front-line workers received raises starting in March 2021,” said Sarah Dusseault, a former commissioner who was then a member of the management committee. “The committee supported better compensation, but had questions about implementation that needed to be resolved.”

In Monday’s interview, Marston chafed at the claim that she was irrelevant.

“If the CEO of a nearly billion-dollar organization has to go to his commission to increase the salaries of employees, which is something in the budget that the commission had approved, I don’t know what you’re need for the CEO or the executive director for,” Marston said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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