It was hijinks and raucous theater — from the feigned insecurity of the security detail to Dale’s Great Wall of Boxes. The orchestration unfolded before the press — with McCormick in the lead role, as star, director and producer.
It was the January board of commissioners meeting at the Maine State Housing Authority — and MSHA Director Dale McCormick had set the stage. To start with, she’d addressed the eighth item on the agenda to intimidate and control just as visitors got feet through the door.
There had been complaints previously that visitors were not being allowed unhindered access to public meetings at MaineHousing — allowed by law. At a former board meeting, legally categorized as open to the public — which includes press — visitors were made to remain in the crowded lobby until after the meeting started. They were then ushered upstairs to the meeting room, where they were seated, or left standing when the chairs ran out, at a far end of the conference room, under an overhang which made hearing the proceedings difficult.
At a subsequent meeting, friendly members of the press were ushered in early; those who had scrutinized, in print, McCormick’s running of the agency were forced to wait — with a staff member threatening, in one instance, to have a questioner of the heavy-handed tactics removed by the police if another question was raised. At a later meeting, where press was denied access, and a MSHA security officer was asked why, the response echoed what had clearly been established as the attitude of MSHA Central — “It’s an invitation only meeting.” Since that had been very much the attitude demonstrated by MSHA officials overall, regarding both meetings and public records, it was difficult to determine how this particular invitation-only meeting should be legally categorized.
Never mind that MaineHousing is a public building, with its $625,000 annual rent paid by taxpayers. Never mind that the officials denying access are taxpayer funded.
Given the ongoing denial of public access and the ensuing complaints, MSHA Board Chair Peter Anastos determined the matter warranted formal determination. He listed it as the eighth item on the agenda for the January board meeting.
McCormick, as always, was ahead of the game — not with legal compliance but with an alternate head-’em-off-at-the pass tactic.
The lobby had been roped off.
In the crowded entryway, a movie-theater style strand of fabric barricaded entrants from even reaching the reception window. A sign propped on a stand just behind the cord, warned visitors not to travel beyond without a staffer — to insure the safety of agency employees. It had just come to McCormick, apparently, after her many years as executive director, that letting people into her building could be a threat to employee safety. That it had occurred to her on the same day as the topic of legal access was slated for discussion by her commissioners at the board meeting in the hallowed hall beyond was — well………synchronicity?
The intimidation did not stop at the roped barrier. Suddenly from the glass security booth a male staffer appeared, officiously scooping up the clipboard with the visitor signup sheet. He demanded a name and business affiliation, a spelling — and when a visitor offered to sign the sheet personally as had previously been the standard, the security officer protectively clutched the pencil and cautioned against the violation of newly mandated protocol. He then demanded a physical address. Denied the information, he persisted, demanding the information twice more.
Apparently even MSHA sentries know some limits — and he ultimately satisfied his guard duty instinct by standing opposite the one-person opening — in case, apparently, a visitor or a member of the press decided to make a run for the elevator.
A subsequent member of the public was grilled by a female staffer to either give a business affiliation or an explanation for showing up at the public meeting in this public building. What business did he have being there, they wanted to know.
In the conference room on a floor above, McCormick had arranged props.
She’d had the conference room where the board meeting was held arranged to allow for the construction of a wall of boxes behind the seated commissioners — more than two-hundred cardboard file boxes.
Someone in attendance later wondered aloud how many staff hours had been used in carrying and piling the boxes.
The subject of access to the MSHA building ultimately took low priority to the lengthy and explosive debate regarding access to MSHA public records which preceded it. McCormick, with a legislative bill looming to hold the director of MSHA accountable to its board, was having none of
Board members raised questions regarding why it took MSHA so long to respond to board members requesting information, why seven months after a freedom of access request had been filed and paid for by the Maine Heritage Policy Center had it still not been filled while pieces of the requested information had been selectively released to both a liberal blogger and selective members of the press, why the chairperson’s request for information from a MSHA meeting he’d attended had been ignored, why MSHA had donated money — in some cases, sizable chunks — to liberal and political groups seemingly in sync with the director’s own political leanings — alignments which had likely benefitted the progress of her own political career.
The questions were trotted out methodically at first, then in frustrated fits and starts. McCormick interrupted often, ignoring the chairperson’s numerous admonishments. She presented herself in charge. She portrayed herself as a victim. She categorized herself as a dispenser of great good works to the people of the state. She was puzzled; she was confused. She was combative. She was contradictory. She was even at points parentally admonishing — to her own board chairperson, when at one point she made a V shape with two fingers and jabbing them at her own eyes, ordered the chairperson to look at her, then repeated the directive as if she was speaking to an errant underling. Anastos, unable to prevent her numerous interruptions, ignored her. She occasionally answered questions, then a few minutes later contradicted her own answers.
She argued with commissioners, insisting that she was already accountable to her board, and therefore, she said, no legislative action would be necessary (as outlined in the proposed MSHA director accountability bill). It would, she said, just politicize the process. Her reactions said loud and clear that she had no intent of being held accountable to the board, on any subject.
McCormick eventually acknowledged the props. With a fitful gesture, she called attention to the boxes — cardboard file boxes — piled high and stretching the length of the back wall. These contained the files that represented the long hours of work ahead of her beleaguered agency, she
mourned, to respond to the freedom of access request.
Among other records, Maine Heritage is seeking dates and monetary amounts for thousands of vendor items which include stays at pricey hotels and payments to eateries, massage therapists and entertainers.
The frustration of the majority of board members was vocalized by an obviously upset Lincoln Merrill. Sweeping his hand across his forehead and momentarily shielding his eyes, Merrill described MSHA as “so dysfunctional it’s really frustrating…..”
Merrill noted he sat on “a lot of boards. “And this is the ugliest place I’ve sat…”
“If you whittle it all down….” he said, “we may be the commissioners…. but technically the authority has no responsibility to do anything we say…. you can do any damned thing you please….there’s not a damned thing we can do about it….we can sit here and whine. We can complain. We can say nobody tells us anything….there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the way it is.”
“This operation operates independently. It’s not subject to oversight by us. It’s not subject to oversight by the governor. It’s not subject to oversight by the legislature. I don’t think a damned thing we say makes a damned bit of difference to anybody.”
Merrill sounded emotional in a room that had gone otherwise silent. “We don’t even know what’s going on…. it’s not acceptable. This is over a billion dollar operation but it’s being run like a corner grocery store and it’s just not acceptable.”
Emphasized Merrill, “There’s not enough oversight. The governance is not working the way it should.”
To see Lincoln Merrill’s full comments, watch here or below: