Commentary

Editorial: A Tale of Two Standards

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In July, the Bangor Daily News ran an editorial titled “Where was Maine Turnpike Authority oversight?”. The editors of the BDN were outraged by the MTA board’s lack of probity when it came to the financial practices of the now-disgraced director, Paul Violette. The BDN said the director’s lack of supervision, allowing a series of corrupt expenditures, meant the MTA board was not ‘fulfilling its duty to the public’. The entire MTA saga showed that board oversight of quasi-state agencies needed to be taken to a new level. So why does the BDN, and others in the traditional press, now think the Maine State Housing Authority should be left alone?

The MSHA board has been reinforced with new members appointed by Governor LePage, and they are not taking their responsibility lightly. Led by Board Chair Peter Anastos and State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, the MSHA board is digging into the management practices of the multi-million dollar agency for the first time in recent memory. Here’s a rundown of what they’ve discovered so far:

  • MSHA payroll spending has risen at a rate of more than 30% since the current director, Dale McCormick, took over in 2005. This is nearly three times the rate of the rest of state government, and double the rate of salary increases at the MTA and UMaine System.
  • MSHA has approved a number of ‘affordable housing’ projects at outrageous costs – many one and two bedroom efficiency units have been built for more than $250,000 per unit. Board inquiry has revealed that MSHA’s approval process does not factor in cost at all, and that cost containment has not been discussed since McCormick took over.
  • MSHA has had to suspend the $600,000 contract of a firm responsible for inspecting Section 8 housing units, after an expose in a local paper showed horrific living conditions at an affordable housing complex in Norway.
  • MSHA, like MTA, has been giving out large sums of taxpayer funds to political groups and groups with no relation to affordable housing or MSHA’s mission, but with ties to McCormick.

These are all serious issues, and MSHA will be a better-run organization once the board has remedied them. Unfortunately, the political survival efforts of the current director have led to the BDN and other pro-government cronies chastising Poliquin and the board for the very same oversight that should have been in place at the Turnpike Authority. Rather than encouraging transparency and oversight, the BDN recently warned Poliquin, Governor LePage, and The Maine Heritage Policy Center (the publishers of this website) to ‘tread lightly’ when it comes to MSHA.

“Their vigilance, presumably in the name of accountability and efficiency, risks hampering one of the few state agencies that can spur economic activity and create jobs while helping people find safe affordable housing.”

The BDN’s contention that affordable housing is an economic development tool is a good example of the growing state of confusion at the paper. The need for affordable housing is an indicator of financial duress, not a means to improve the economy.

Perhaps more frightening than the lack of basic economic understanding at the BDN is the notion that a newspaper, once the vanguard for transparency and government accountability, would step in to protect the opacity of a state agency. The idea that requests for financial accountability by the board of directors would ‘risk hampering’ the Housing Authority is beyond absurd, and lead many to wonder at the BDN’s abrupt change in philosophy toward quasi-state agency oversight.

It seems also that the paper of record for more than half the state has inserted itself as a player in the MSHA drama. They recently assigned the son of a McCormick staffer to cover the turmoil at the agency, and rebuffed criticism of the move. They refused to cover revelations of massive salary increases at the department, and they ignored for several days the news that U.S. Senator Susan Collins had become involved in a dispute over failed inspection practices at the agency, despite having a reporter present at the meeting where this was revealed. The reporter even wrote an extensive story about the meeting, but failed to mention the senator’s involvement.

And, in a seemingly retaliatory effort, the BDN pushed breathless coverage of a completely non-related personal real estate permit application filed by board member Bruce Poliquin. The coverage referred to Poliquin’s Phippsburg development as a ‘failing beach club’, and claimed his permitting efforts were ‘controversial’. The BDN reporter claimed that ‘the uprising against the application was fierce’, even though it was approved by the committee by a vote of 6-1. It’s hard to imagine a major newspaper dedicating such effort to the personal real estate dealings of other state officials, and even harder to imagine a respectable news organization bending reality so hard in an effort to smear a public figure.

The Bangor Daily News has established itself as a clarion voice for the Left in Maine, but these efforts seem to go beyond simple partisan slant. Standing up as an advocate for mismanaged government agencies may not be a good plan for a paper facing obsolescence with every new circulation report.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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