For now, Ocean City Housing Authority to keep executive director

The Ocean City Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is shown in a March meeting. Alesia Watson, shown here to the right of Board Commissioner Bob Barr (center), was removed as executive director at the board's Tuesday, May 16.

file photo

OCEAN CITY — Alesia Watson was removed Tuesday from her position as executive director of the Ocean City Housing Authority, a week after she pleaded guilty to charges of embezzling federal funds.

The Ocean City Housing Authority also approved a shared services agreement with the Vineland Housing Authority to have its executive director work in Ocean City on an interim basis, board chairman Bob Barr said Wednesday.

Watson, 54, of Galloway Township, had not been to work since May 8, when she appeared in U.S. District Court in Camden. She did not appear at the Ocean City Housing Authority Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night.

After a 30-minute executive session, Barr and Commissioners Scott Halliday, Portia Thompson, Paula McFarland and Edmond Speitel unanimously voted to terminate the authority’s contract with the Brick Housing Authority for Watson’s services. Vice chairwoman Patricia Miles-Jackson was absent, Barr said.

While the commission searches for a new executive director, Jacqueline Jones will serve as the interim director through the shared services contract also approved Tuesday. Jones, the executive director of the Vineland Housing Authority, will be paid $4,875 per month until a permanent replacement is found.

The Ocean City Housing Authority maintains about 120 units of affordable, low-income housing for families and seniors, funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Barr said Wednesday he has full confidence in Jones as she steps into a new role at a housing authority in need of capital improvements. The Housing Authority is looking to repair two aging elevators, one of which is out of service, in Bay View Manor, the low-cost senior living complex on 635 West Ave.

Barr has also said he wants to fix Bay View Manor's leaky roof, and he said Wednesday that bed bugs were found there recently in one unit. An inspector found that the problem was contained to that single unit, and that all other units were free of contamination, he said. He said an exterminator will take care of the problem in "short order."

The situation was one example of issues at the complex that Barr believes Jones will handle in stride.

Of the more than 25 people that packed the meeting room on the fifth floor of Bayview Manor, no one spoke in support for or against Watson Tuesday afternoon, according to The Press. But some did say after the meeting that they were happy to see her go. One woman, who did not wish to be identified, said she had come to the meeting looking for apologies and explanations.

Watson was employed by the Brick Housing Authority and worked part time for Ocean City through an interlocal agreement in which Ocean City paid Brick $61,600 a year. On May 12, Watson agreed to resign from the Brick Housing Authority, according to reports.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Watson admitted to using two credit cards maintained by the Housing Authority to buy 69 MasterCard gift cards between December 2013 and March 2015 for personal use. She signed a plea agreement in January, but never informed her employers of the investigation, Barr said.

Watson faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine when she is sentenced in August.

In March, the Board of Commissioners held a special meeting to discuss terminating its contract with Watson. The six-member board deliberated in a closed session for an hour at the March 8 meeting before tabling a resolution to terminate the shared services agreement with Brick.

During the closed session, more than a dozen residents of Bay View Manor spoke glowingly of Watson's tenure outside the Bay View Manor Community Room, where the board deliberated.

In an interview with The Gazette at the time, Watson said her long-term vision for Housing Authority included a massive project to redevelop Bay View Manor and the aging units at Peck’s Beach Village, where 60 family and senior units are located on either side of Fourth Street. Watson also said she wanted to open a community center in the neighborhood that would be especially geared toward its younger residents.

In 2015, Watson started the Youth Leadership Empowerment Explosion, an event held annually in late spring to engage children who live in Pecks Beach Village. She started the event in response to the December 2014 suicide of Maliha Chowdhury, an Ocean City High School senior who lived in the neighborhood.

But Watson had a long history of work in housing authorities and several previous theft convictions.

Known previously as Alesia Humphrey, she had four separate theft convictions since 1992, including one as recent as 2001, according to Press archives. Watson — then Alesia Humphrey — worked for the Atlantic City Housing Authority from 2001 to 2007, serving briefly as executive director for five weeks before resigning after The Press of Atlantic City reported on those past convictions.

Her contract was set to expire in 2018.

Andrew Parent can be reached at aparent@catamaranmedia.com or 609-365-6173.