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La Joya Housing Authority executive director abruptly resigns

La Joya Housing Authority Executive Director Cristi LaJeunesse abruptly resigned on Wednesday.

LaJeunesse — a consultant from San Antonio who manages public housing programs in small towns across South Texas — attempted to fix the dysfunctional housing authority. She lasted just nine months.

“I will not be a party to blatant violations of state and federal law, so my only option was to resign,” LaJeunesse said in a statement. “If the Board or new Commissioners appointed by a subsequent mayor would like my help in the future to abide by the law and run the housing authority in a legal manner, I would be open to coming back or advising the Board as a consultant again. But ultimately the Board, as it is currently composed, made it impossible for me to continue working with the LJHA. I wish the LJHA staff and residents all the best.”

LaJeunesse inherited a housing authority with a long history of problems.

In 2002, Executive Director Jose Reynaldo Trevino and Ovidio Ramirez, who managed the Section 8 program, confessed to stealing nearly $195,000 from the housing authority.

La Joya hired Executive Director Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza to fix the mess they left behind. He eventually became ensnared in a federal bid-rigging case and pleaded guilty.

In 2017, board Chairwoman Frances A. Salinas, the daughter of Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas, resigned to become executive director.

That created a conflict of interest: Mayor Salinas appointed the housing authority board, which supervised his daughter.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned the board about the conflict of interest, but the board refused to replace Frances Salinas.

During her tenure, someone withdrew more than $10,000 in cash from housing authority bank accounts. Confronted with records that revealed suspicious financial transactions, the board fired Frances Salinas.

LaJeunesse became the executive director in October 2018.

“I tried my best to get the LJHA to comply with state and federal law. When the prior executive director’s illegal actions were exposed, Mayor Salinas started to escalate the situation by attempting to illegally remove Board members,” LaJeunesse said in a statement. “Mayor Salinas began to stack the Board with commissioners who would protect his daughter. Last week when a motion was made to release a $20,000 judgment owed by Frances Salinas, without even allowing for an investigation, it became apparent that the Board is prioritizing the Salinas family over the well being of the housing authority residents.”

LaJeunesse submitted her resignation letter at 5:39 p.m. Wednesday, less than an hour before a housing authority board meeting. The board voted 5-0 to accept her resignation.

“She tried her best and things didn’t go the way she wanted,” said Commissioner German Reyna. “And she ended up leaving.”

Commissioner Jose Armando Salinas, who represents housing authority tenants, said he didn’t think LaJeunesse wanted to work with the board.

“I think that she didn’t like that we took control and that we wouldn’t let her do whatever she wanted to do,” Jose Armando Salinas said. “We disapproved. She wanted to do things her way and that’s what caused the problem.”

Jose Armando Salinas said he wanted LaJeunesse to meet with the board and answer questions.

“We needed answers and we needed details,” Jose Armando Salinas said. “And we never got them.”

LaJeunesse also served as executive director of the Kenedy Housing Authority, which manages public housing programs in Karnes City, Three Rivers and Smiley. She also supervised the Beeville Housing Authority.

As a result, LaJeunesse spent just a few days a month in La Joya. Members of the board eventually became concerned that LaJeunesse wasn’t available whenever tenants had questions.

They also asked why La Joya paid $4,000 per month for a part-time executive director. Members of the board, however, approved that arrangement in October 2018 without complaint.

“She was absent a lot,” said board Chairman John Pena.

When she didn’t attend a board meeting last week, members demanded that LaJeunesse appear Wednesday to answer their questions. LaJeunesse responded with a resignation letter that listed 13 concerns about how the board conducts business.

“It looks almost exactly like our complaints,” Pena said. “But she’s complaining to us.”

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