Jay Kelekian has served as the executive director of the Berkeley Rent Board, whose offices are on Milvia Street in downtown Berkeley, for 18 years. File photo

Jay Kelekian, who has served as the executive director of the Rent Stabilization Board for 18 years, but who was recently put on administrative leave, is retiring from the organization.

Kelekian sent a letter to the board May 21 announcing he would be stepping down effective June 2. He called it an “awesome and incredibly fulfilling job,” but also referenced recent tensions and policy disputes between himself and the nine-member elected board.

Kelekian is retiring in the middle of an investigation that appears to be examining alleged harassment of an employee, although the Rent Board has not confirmed the details, citing employee privacy concerns.

On Feb. 27, the Rent Board authorized the expenditure of $100,000 to hire two separate law firms to continue “ongoing personnel investigations.” That was on top of $30,000 the Rent Board had already spent to look into an internal matter.

The Renne Public Law Group agreed to look into a “workplace complaint submitted on August 6, 2019, by a Rent Board employee to the City of Berkeley’s Human Resource Department,” according to its contract, which Berkeleyside obtained after filing a public records request.

Ruth Bond, the attorney hired to do the investigation, will present the findings of the investigation but “will not render a determination of whether there was a violation of law, e.g. unlawful harassment under FEHA or Title VII.”

The FEHA is the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Its central tenet is to enforce laws that make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, ancestry, national origin, religion, age, physical or mental disabilities, sex, gender, sexual orientation and other categories.

Title VII refers to a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “that protects employees against discrimination based on certain specified characteristics: race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.”

“As a matter of principle, I have never and will not discuss confidential personnel matters other than to strongly deny any allegations of harassment,” Kelekian texted Berkeleyside.

The Rent Board called a special virtual meeting April 24 to do “a public employee performance evaluation,” of the executive director in closed session. Four days later, the board held another special virtual meeting to discuss an “acting executive director.” The board then appointed Matthew (Matt) Brown, a Rent Board attorney, as acting executive director. Paola Laverde, the chair of the Rent Board, said at the time that Kelekian had been placed on paid administrative leave. Kelekian earns more than $213,000 a year.

Kelekian started working at the Rent Board as an intern in 1984. He was hired on staff as an analyst and stayed until 1994 when he went to work for the city of Berkeley’s public works department. He worked as acting marina manager and secretary to the parks and recreation commission and the waterfront commission. (They are now one commission.) In 1995, Kelekian became the first administrative staffer for the newly created parks and waterfront department. He returned to the Rent Board in 2002 as executive director.

The Rent Board oversees the regulation of about 21,000 apartments in Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

As executive director, Kelekian oversaw an independent Berkeley agency with 24 employees and a 2019-2020 fiscal year budget of $5.4 million. The Rent Board oversees the regulation of about 21,000 apartments in Berkeley, 50,000 tenants and 2,800 landlords. It communicates the protections and requirements mandated by the 1980 law that set up rent control in Berkeley, often through workshops, seminars and emails. The Rent Board counsels about 1,000 people a month, the majority of those landlords, according to a recent report. Much of the Rent Board’s budget is generated through the $250 registration fee landlords must pay annually for each unit they own.

Kelekian said in a text that he could not choose one thing he was proudest of doing since it was hard to pick “which kid I like best…I am proud that for the past 36 years (during an era or government retrenchment) I have worked tirelessly to promote a vision of government that is based on providing ongoing service and fairness to all Berkeley residents (landlords, tenants, and all other residents).”

In his retirement letter, Kelekian thanked the hundreds of people he has worked with during his 36 years in Berkeley. He gave a special call-out to Jacki Foster and Joyce Spikes, “two brilliant, undervalued and often forgotten African American women. Together, they convinced me that one didn’t have to go off to developing nations to live a life of service and meaning and, because Berkeley was such a special place, those riches were available in my own back yard.”

Kelekian said that in the past few years he had been preparing and serving meals to the homeless. He said he intends to do more of that kind of work in the future.

“Recently, I have been disappointed regarding policy-related decisions and practices, procedures implemented, and actions taken by the Board.” — Jay Kelekian

Kelekian also included a jab at the Rent Board itself in the letter.

“Recently, I have been disappointed regarding policy-related decisions and practices, procedures implemented, and actions taken by the Board. Given this divide, I believe it is time for me to move on to new endeavors. To the extent that my staff feel they have not been heard related to those issues or any other issues during my tenure as Executive Director, I do regret that. It is my only regret.”

Laverde, the board chair, thanked Kelekian for his service: “The Board thanks Jay for his leadership and dedicated service to the Rent Stabilization Program and other City Departments and wishes him good health and all the best in the future.”

Brown, who has worked with Kelekian for 16 years, praised his former boss.

“Jay will be remembered for a rich and fulfilling career, to be sure, but what I admired most is how much he truly cared about the marginalized and underserved members of the community,” Brown wrote in a May 22 email which was shared with Berkeleyside. “Whatever policy initiatives Jay promoted, he always (and I mean ALWAYS) considered the most vulnerable person that may be affected by proposed legislation and endeavored to do everything possible to ensure that the law protected that person. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another civil servant fight so hard for the disenfranchised.”

Krista Gulbransen, the executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, a landlord advocacy group, said she had a good working relationship with Kelekian.

“My interactions with Jay have been one of collaboration over the last five years and we have been appreciative of that,” she said.

Brown said that he expected the Rent Board to launch a search for a new executive director soon.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to include some of Kelekian’s texts.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...