The eviction hearing of Cumberland Towers whistleblower Betty Murray has been postponed for the second time in a month.
The head of the Housing Authority board of directors, in response to a question, said the delay had no connection to the Housing Authority’s ongoing search for a permanent director. Acting Director Shelly Ehenger, who has backed efforts to evict Murray and has defended Housing Authority actions despite the Times’ discovery of several fire safety issues at the high-rise, is a candidate for the job.
Murray was slated for eviction after coming to the Arkansas Times with claims that the fire alarm in her apartment didn’t work the night of a May 5 blaze at Cumberland Towers that took the lives of two elderly women. Murray’s latest eviction hearing, scheduled for June 30, was canceled at the last minute, with Housing officials citing a scheduling conflict by the Conway Housing Authority administrator who is being brought in to chair the hearing. A previous eviction hearing for Murray was also canceled for the same reason — a personal conflict by the Conway administrator. As of this writing, a new hearing has not been scheduled.
Ehenger has been named as one of three finalists for the permanent Housing Authority director’s position. As interim director, she would have the authority to order Murray’s eviction hearing postponed. Ehenger failed to return nearly a dozen messages left at her office last week by the Arkansas Times.
Ron Copeland, chairman of the Little Rock Housing Authority board of directors, laughed off the idea that Ehenger or her staff might be stalling Murray’s hearing in order to avoid further bad press while the Board is contemplating who should fill the director’s chair.
“I think the staff is anxious to do it in a timely manner,” Copeland said. “I don’t think there’s anything in their interest for dragging it out.”
Arkansas Times reporting has raised a number of questions about fire safety at Cumberland Towers, an 11-story high-rise built before sprinkler systems were required and thus dependent on alarm systems to protect the mostly elderly people who live there.
• Tests found malfunctioning smoke detectors in ten percent of the apartments in the building weeks after the May 5 fire.
• Numerous residents reported problems with the alarm system the night of the blaze.
• The fire marshal discovered several covered and disabled smoke detectors, apparently because residents feared the risk of eviction for triggering false alarms through cigarette smoking or cooking.
• An apparent long gap between the time of the first alarm at the building and the time the alarm monitoring company sent an alert to the fire department. The gap contributed to a 24-minute delay between the first smoke alarm’s activation and the arrival of firefighters, a gap that could have been critical in saving residents who died.
• Annual inspections of the fire alarm system at Cumberland are overseen by Shelly Ehenger’s husband, Paul Ehenger, who serves directly under his wife as director of technical services.
Asked about all this, Copeland said the Little Rock Fire Department is “the authority I look to on this.” The fire marshal’s preliminary report on the Cumberland Towers fire, released June 2, states that “from all available evidence the alarm system activated as it was designed to do.”
“We’re not experts on fire alarms and fire response,” Copeland said. “Certainly they are, so I look to them.”
Copeland said the Housing Authority Board has decided to meet this week on the search for a new director, and could make a decision as early as Thursday, the day this copy of the Times reaches news stands.