James Kelekian, who has served as the head of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board for 18 years, is no longer the executive director.
The Rent Board commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to appoint Matthew Brown, a longtime staff attorney, as acting executive director, according to Paola Laverde, the chair of the Rent Board. She said that Kelekian “is on paid administrative leave. The rest is a confidential personnel matter.”
When contacted by Berkeleyside, Kelekian texted: “I’m out on leave.”
The Rent Board called a special virtual meeting April 24 to do “a public employee performance evaluation,” of the executive director in closed session. On Tuesday, it held another special virtual meeting to discuss an “acting executive director.”
Laverde did not provide any more details about Kelekian’s sudden exit.
Two months earlier, on Feb. 27, the Rent Board voted in closed session to spend $100,000 to “continue ongoing personnel investigations being conducted by an outside investigator concerning Board employees.” The Rent Board voted 7-1-0, with Alejandro Soto Vigil voting against and Maria Poblet absent, to hire two outside law firms, one to dig into the matter and one to advise the board. Kelekian, in consultation with the Berkeley City Attorney, had already authorized the expenditure of $30,000 for the investigation, according to a rent board resolution. The board voted to spend $80,000 to hire the Renne Public Law Group “to complete the ongoing investigation into various personnel matters,” and $20,000 to hire Sloan Sakai Yeung & Wong to advise the board once the investigation is completed.
The resolution does not provide more details about the focus of the investigation.
The Berkeley Rent Board regulates rents for about 20,000 rent-controlled apartments in Berkeley. The Rent Board, which is made of nine elected commissioners, sets the annual cap of how much rents can be raised. The Rent Board also regulates evictions and provides information to tenants and landlords. It has been active during the pandemic in spreading the word about what tenants should do if they cannot pay their rent because of the economic impact of COVID-19 and how landlords should respond.
The Rent Board hired Kelekian, commonly known as Jay, in October 2002. He is one of the higher paid employees in Berkeley. In 2018, his salary was $213,324, excluding benefits, according to Transparent California. He earned more than Dave Brannigan, the Berkeley fire chief, who earned $195,647. The commissioners of the Rent Board set the executive director’s salary.
In 2012, the Alameda County Grand Jury criticized the pay for the executive director, pointing out that he oversaw just 21 employees. In contrast, the director of public works earned less than Kelekian and oversaw a $90 million budget and 326 employees.
That was no longer true by 2018. Phil Harrington, then the director of public works, earned $217,829, according to Transparent California. In comparison, Andy Greenwood, the Berkeley chief of police, earned $236,454 that year while City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley earned $289,639.
Update, 2:45 p.m. This story was updated to add information about the internal Rent Board investigation into personnel matters.
Natalie Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.