The Atlanta Housing Authority has reached a severance agreement with its former chief executive, Catherine Buell, after more than two months of negotiations, and will pay her at least $390,000 to buy out her contract.
Buell was one of seven holdovers from the cabinet of former Mayor Kasim Reed whose resignations were accepted by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in April. But whether AHA might face a legal fight or have to pay Buell more than a half-million dollars in a buyout remained in limbo.
According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the AHA board agreed to pay Buell nearly $130,000 to serve as a consultant to the agency for six months. The agreement, signed by Buell on June 30, also will pay her an additional year’s salary — $260,000 — plus up to a year of benefits and any accrued leave.
Buell signed a contract with AHA in October 2016 to serve as CEO through early January 2020. The contract called for her to be paid twice her annual salary, or $520,000, plus benefits, if she were terminated “without cause.”
In a statement, AHA Chairman Dr. Christopher Edwards said, “the compromise eliminates our exposure to the expense of another long and costly lawsuit.”
“It allows Atlanta Housing’s CEO and staff to focus on its mission of providing affordable housing,” he said. “And it’s one more important step in getting [the authority] out of the expensive and distracting lawsuit business. We wish Ms. Buell the best in all of her future endeavors.”
A spokesman for Bottoms did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
In May, the AHA board appointed fellow director Brandon Riddick-Seals as interim CEO, and announced plans to conduct a national search for a new leader.
Under Buell, and with the backing of Reed, AHA embarked on litigation against former AHA CEO Renee Glover and developer Egbert Perry over land deals dating back several years. Perry called the litigation frivolous and alleged Reed attempted to smear him.
One lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in April and a second was dropped by the city.
AHA has taken heat for not meeting the city’s needs for affordable housing. Though luxury apartment development has boomed, soaring rents have squeezed low income residents, and critics say AHA has failed to develop new units to help combat rising housing costs.
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It’s not unheard of for cities to offer contracts to highly-skilled executives to ensure job stability and to woo them away from lucrative private sector jobs. But contracts with expensive exit packages for high-ranking city officials became an issue last year in the race to succeed Reed.
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, who was one of nearly a dozen contenders in the race for mayor last year, criticized the practice.
“The taxpayers are the ones who suffer from this, and the current mayor ought to have the opportunity to put into place the people she wants to put into place to get her agenda,” Woolard said.