WILDER — Ruben Buenrostro, the former executive director of the Wilder Housing Authority, has filed a tort claim against the city of Wilder and the Wilder Housing Authority for wrongful termination from his position as executive director with the authority, according to a copy of the notice of the tort claim obtained by the Idaho Press.
“What I want out of this is that it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Buenrostro said in a phone interview.
Buenrostro’s tort claim states Wilder Mayor Steve Rhodes defamed “his good name and reputation” and that he incurred economic damages and suffered health issues as a result of Rhodes’ actions.
The Wilder Housing Authority manages Chula Vista, a 120-unit housing complex for low-income residents and H2-A farm workers. In February, Rhodes created a new contract transitioning the management of the housing authority from being overseen by an independent board to being managed by the city, an interagency relationship that does not exist elsewhere in the state. All of the authority’s existing board members were replaced with city staff, and the executive director position Buenrostro held was eliminated, despite the housing authority’s board members who worked with Buenrostro maintaining that he was doing an excellent job.
The notice of the tort claim summarizes a variety of interactions between Buenrostro and Rhodes that preceded Buenrostro’s firing and the city’s takeover of the Housing Authority.
A tort claim isn’t a lawsuit, but it often precedes one. Tort claims are a written demand to recover money damages from a governmental entity, its employees and/or its representatives alleging misconduct. Tort law requires that the agency involved must respond within three months. If the agency does not respond to or rejects the claim then the claimant may sue the agency.
Buenrostro had a strong relationship with the former mayor, Alicia Almazan, but the tort claim alleges that Rhodes refused to communicate with Buenrostro.
Buenrostro first heard from \ Rhodes in February 2020 when the mayor, via a city clerk, requested information on the salaries of all of the housing authority’s staff, as well as “financial statements and previous audits for the mayor to review,” according to the document. Buenrostro had heard rumors circulating that Rhodes thought Buenrostro “was making too much money for a Hispanic,” according to the document. At the time, Buenrostro was making $57,000 a year, the document said. Buenrostro submitted the information to the city, and when he asked why the mayor wanted the information, he received no response.
“This was the beginning of many uncomfortable communications with the city,” according to the document.
Buenrostro also received three requests from the Wilder Police Chief, to share detailed information about the tenants of Chula Vista. He did not comply with the first two requests because he did not consider them lawful, and he was concerned that it would open up the largely Hispanic community to retaliation.
“I don’t believe they were lawfully entitled to this information,” Buenrostro said. “They were not only our tenants, they were our customers, and we have an obligation to them from the minute they sign a lease.”
In the past, when the city needed information from the housing authority, they would reach out to Buenrostro and allow him to reach out to residents through notices and going door-to-door, he said. The requests from the city seemed “very suspect” because they did not seem to show care for residents’ privacy, he said.
There also were two occasions where law enforcement officials congregated around the Wilder Housing Authority office, which was concerning, Buenrostro said.
Buenrostro was also asked to leave public board meetings of the housing authority on two occasions when the mayor called for an executive session. Though the public is required to leave such sessions, and the mayor is required to give 48-hours notice that they will be calling an executive session, Buenrostro would normally have been permitted to attend. During these sessions, the mayor spent time “degrading” Buenrostro and planning for the city to assume control of the housing authority, according to the document. The members of the housing authority, defended Buenrostro’s leadership.
“It was clear from the meeting that Mayor Rhodes did not like Mr. Buenrostro because he is obese and Hispanic,” the document reads.
On Feb. 5, with the city moving forward on its plans to absorb the housing authority, Buenrostro started experiencing debilitating stress and went to the emergency room, causing him to miss a housing authority meeting held that evening, according to the document. At the meeting, the mayor again publicly questioned Buenrostro’s suitability for the job, and his position was formally eliminated.
Buenrostro brought experience from working for other housing authorities, including as an administrative assistant for the Caldwell Housing Authority, and he said he feels greatly wronged that Rhodes was set on eliminating him despite his achievements. Prior to Buenrostro’s tenure, the housing authority did not receive rent payments consistently each month from all tenants; Buenrostro was able to collect rent from 100% of tenants for over two years, he said. He credits his success with being able to communicate with the tenants in Spanish, and establishing a better relationship with them. He is concerned that the mayor and the city, in taking over management of the authority, do not have the tenants’ best interests at heart.
Efforts to reach Rhodes for comment were unsuccessful Monday.
“That housing authority is there for the interests of the people that live there,” Buenrostro said. “There should be a person there whose interest is to provide that service to the community and not think about themselves,” he said. This person should be able to build bridges between the tenant and the city, he said.