Attempt to restrict tenant's speech outrageous
Published 01/24/2010 12:00 AM
The latest trouble involving the New London Housing Authority sounds too outrageous to be true.
Frank Cirioni, president of the tenants' association at the 38-unit Gordon Court complex off Williams Street, claims he faces eviction for speaking out about housing authority problems.
The 63-year-old former city police officer is president of the tenants' association at Gordon Court, a complex for elderly and handicapped people. And indeed, he has a copy of an Oct. 21, 2009, "notice of termination of rental agreement for failure to comply with obligations" that states, among other things, "Tenant issues should be discussed at the sanctioned tenant's association meetings, and not at any other time and not on the common areas of the property, nor at any tenant's residence."
That is outrageous.
Freedom of speech is a basic right of American citizens. The 1st and 14th amendments of the Constitution outline the people's right to express ideas, information and opinions free of government restrictions.
The official reason for Mr. Cirioni's eviction notice is nonpayment of rent. Two months after receiving the chilling notice that he was in violation of regulations for "speaking negatively about the housing authority to other agencies in the city of New London and writing incorrect information regarding the Gordon Court Association to the residents of Gordon Court," he received notice of the eviction for nonpayment of rent.
According to Mr. Cirioni, he did pay the $107 rent in November, but ran afoul of the housing authority over a $25 late fee he was previously assessed when he once paid his rent late. That fee ballooned in November when the authority tacked on $110 in legal fees and a $25 marshal's fee.
The Dec. 15 eviction notice, Mr. Cirioni concluded, is really about his outspokenness as Gordon Court tenant association president.
And it sure looks that way.
The October notice cites various sections of the housing authority's rental agreement that Mr. Cirioni allegedly violated, including conducting tenants' meetings without the property manager or a member of the housing authority in attendance. It also says he threatened neighbors and authority staff, and that some neighbors complained.
This is interesting, since his fellow renters elected Mr. Cirioni president of their tenants' association for a third term last fall. If he upset someone by discussing complex shortcomings and handing out leaflets, apparently it wasn't a majority of the tenants.
Problems have plagued the New London Housing Authority for decades, leading to its designation since 1998 as a "troubled housing authority" by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The authority is mired in staggering debt; has had three executive directors in less than five years, two of whom were forced out; and is the subject of a class-action lawsuit by tenants at the Thames River Apartments (formerly called the Crystal Avenue high-rise) who are suing for clean, safe living quarters.
The problems are so big they are beyond the ability of the five-member City Council-appointed housing authority alone to fix. But the understandable frustration is no justification for trying to strong-arm tenants into compliant silence.
Individuals have a right to speak up. They have a right to petition their neighbors. And they have a right to complain even when the housing authority isn't there and doesn't like what they have to say.
That right is freedom of speech.
EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE: ARE TENANTS RIGHTS BEING VIOLATED ON THE MOHEGAN RESERVATION OR PROBERTIES THAT ARE OWNED OR MANAGED BY THE MOHEGAN TRIBAL HOUSING AUTHORITY? WHAT DO YOU THINK?