BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to streamline the state's public housing system ran into opposition Tuesday from local officials who called the plan "misguided" and an overreaction to a scandal involving the disgraced former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority.
Patrick filed legislation to eliminate the 240 local housing authorities in Massachusetts and replace them with six regional authorities that would assume management of the approximately 80,000 public housing units in the state. Such an overhaul would save money and limit the potential for corruption, he said.
Michael McLaughlin, who resigned as head of the Chelsea agency in 2011, was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges that he concealed his inflated $360,000 salary. McLaughlin also faces state charges that he illegally solicited campaign contributions for former Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and others.
Opponents of the consolidation said they agreed with many reforms proposed by the administration - including some already implemented - but told a legislative committee they were wary of surrendering local oversight.
"Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water here," said Thomas Connelly, Massachusetts director for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
Local housing authorities, many of them elected, were in a better position to make decisions and assess housing needs within their communities, Connelly said.
"We think this bill is misguided and takes away the very structure that has made the public housing system a success in Massachusetts, even though it is greatly underfunded," he said.
An alternative measure backed by the group would keep the local agencies intact while calling for voluntary collaboration, stronger performance standards, independent audits and a centralized state waiting list for families seeking public housing.
Aaron Gornstein, the state's undersecretary of housing and community development, argued that the governor's plan would modernize and strengthen the system.
"The proposed reorganization will result in more efficient, cost-effective administration, greater transparency and accountability, and better tenant services," Gornstein told the panel.
Cities or towns could form housing commissions and would retain control over key decisions such as the development of new housing or the sale of a vacant public housing building, he said. Tenants would still be able to call a local office about routine maintenance issues and rent would be collected by on-site staff, Gornstein added.
"I think there will be a significant amount of local involvement," he said.
In the wake of the McLaughlin case, Gornstein said steps that did not require legislative approval had already been taken, including a $160,000 cap on salaries for housing authority directors and mandatory training for local oversight board members.
Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and a onetime member of the Watertown Housing Authority, said individual issues should be resolved without a complete overhaul.
"If there is a problem, deal with it," Tolman said.