by Terrilyn Simpson
Maine Senator Debra Plowman walked into the lobby of the Maine State Housing Authority in Augusta recently to view the barrier recently installed across the entry area in response to members of the public and uninvited members of the press showing up at MSHA board meetings. But sometime following the board meeting, the barricade had disappeared — leaving the area once again unobstructed.
Two business days previous, the day of the commissioners meeting, webbed strapping had stretched from the wall to a single file entry point directly in front of the glassed in security area. The room-block was reinforced by a new sign: NO UNESCORTED VISITORS BEYOND THIS POINT — YOUR SAFETY AND THE SECURITY OF OUR EMPLOYEES ARE OUR MOST IMPORTANT CONCERNS. And the sign was additionally reinforced by a human sentry with a clipboard. No longer were visitors allowed to sign the sign-up sheet alone, as was the longstanding custom. The guard demanded a name, a business affiliation and in selective instances, insistently emphasized the need for a home address — all this to gain access to a public meeting in a public building.
Brunswick resident Pem Schaeffer said the clipboard was taken from him by the receptionist/security person, who insisted on signing Schaeffer in, then asked for organizational affiliation (“member of the public”) and a reason for being there (“to attend the board meeting…..I’m a member of the public”).
On the more recent visit, Senator Plowman looked around. Her name was given to the security guard, along with the name of the journalist with her. The two were accompanied by a photographer. The security guard stayed seated, behind the glass. He was asked if Information Manager Debra Turcotte was available to discuss building access. He made a call and indicated Turcotte would be down, from her upstairs office.
The Senator was photographed in the center of the open lobby (featured image at top of story) and then next to the counter by the reception window — where the no unescorted visitors sign remained, next to the unattended sign-in sheet. The photographer left, snapping a couple pictures of the outside of the building.
The security guard was replaced by a female receptionist and left the room. The receptionist also indicated Turcotte would be down. Plowman waited for as long as possible, then left for a pre-scheduled meeting with a member of the governor’s staff. Another 15 or 20 minutes later, the security guard reappeared to announce that Turcotte was not available after all.
Visitors had come and gone, unescorted, signing the sign-up sheet all on their own — unscrutinized, without harassment from a hovering guard. There was no commissioners meeting this day.
To say that MSHA Director Dale McCormick and staff are exhibiting resistance and displeasure — and retaliation — at public scrutiny of MaineHousing is an understatement.
Two staff members at MaineHousing, including staff attorney Linda Uhl, had commented following previous board meetings that MSHA is not accustomed to having the press or the public pay any attention to goings-on there.
The blocked access ploy came only days after a Maine Wire news article regarding the hundreds of vendors paid money by the Housing Authority for services seemingly unrelated to affordable housing. The vendors included pricey hotels, such as Caesar’s Palace and the posh George in D.C., magicians, massage therapists, water fun theme parks, theaters, an art and theater group for formerly incarcerated young men, and political groups affiliated with the current MSHA director’s political party.
The vendor list, lacking dates and monetary amounts, was the result of a partial response to a Freedom of Access request filed with MSHA seven months previous by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
The Maine Wire also recently published an article about approximately $145,000 worth of non-performance based bonuses MSHA Director McCormick awarded her staff members in 2010. One longtime state worker, after reading the account, commented that in the middle of a state salary freeze, the news of the MSHA director cavalierly handing out that kind of money — without regard to length of employment or performance – was insulting to other state workers.
That MSHA struck back at the news coverage — with the lobby barricade, the grilling of certain board meeting attendees and the release of a handful of carefully selected vendor explanations to a few friendly members of the press and leftwing bloggers — is not surprising.
The Housing Authority and its director are under ever tightening scrutiny.
The MSHA director is facing a legislative accountability bill, a looming investigation from a government oversight office and hard hitting questions flavored with a lot of frustration from MSHA commissioners.
An increasingly combative McCormick, while arguing against the need for MSHA director accountability to the MSHA board as mandated in the legislative bill, has taken to publicly insulting her own board members during meetings. And while she continues to sing praise to herself and her organization, her excuses for not allowing public access are becoming increasingly bizarre.
In a newspaper article following one board meeting a couple of months ago, McCormick likened the hardhitting questions of new board members to a death threat she said she once received during a legislative campaign.
And following Senator Plowman’s visit to the MSHA lobby, the MSHA information machine went into gear to justify the increased security measures on board-of-commissioners-meeting day.
The press release following Plowman’s visit referenced the increased public attention and attendance at board meetings over the past several months and then highlighted incidents necessitating added security. It said that attendees had argued for admission to the meeting before the “appointed time.” At one meeting, the time “appointed” by MSHA was well after the meeting had begun. It said that MaineHousing staff had received angry comments and endured expletives. The MSHA press release did not stipulate who had made the angry comments or articulated expletives, but one would assume they might be connected to the situation at hand — unless one checked further…And it said that one individual walked right past the security desk to the elevator several feet away, and went to push the elevator button all on his own. And then came the kicker. “In addition to these security-related incidents, MaineHousing recently received a gun threat from an individual.”
Someone trying to get into a commissioner meeting made a gun threat? Since it was thrown in with the trying to get into the meeting on time, angry comments, expletive (could that have been the commissioner who said damn during a meeting — as in MSHA “thinks it can do any damned thing it wants..”), walking four feet past the window to the elevator without permission — well, one would assume…
Private Citizen Pem Schaeffer, his curiosity piqued, actually asked MSHA Information Manager Deb Turcotte.
Schaeffer wrote “Ms. Turcotte: I noted this passage in a recent news posting on the MSHA web site: In addition to these security-related incidents, MaineHousing recently received a gun threat from an individual. Who is investigating this threat – Maine State Police, the Augusta Police, or the Kennebec County Sheriff? ”
And Turcotte’s surprising reply: “Hello Mr. Schaeffer: The threat was from a person with special needs, and the incident was addressed internally.” The gun threat had nothing to do, apparently, with the members of the public trying to attend MSHA board meetings – but throwing it in to the press release added some bite. MSHA seemingly considered the gun threat less of a threat than attempting to push an elevator button without permission in the public building.
Contacted later on the day of her inspection of the MSHA lobby, Plowman said, “Last week I began hearing disturbing details of instances where employees of MSHA sought to intimidate or discourage members of the public as well as the press from attending the public hearings of the Commissioners of the Maine State Housing Authority. I find it ominous that a member of the public or the press for that matter would have to provide their name and particularly their home address in order to attend an open and public meeting of the Commissioners.”
Plowman is a co-sponsor of Senator Jon Courtney’s MSHA Director Accountability bill. As a state senator from Penobscot County, Plowman has also expressed concern regarding MSHA pulling all Section 8 low-income housing contracts from Penquis CAP, located in Penobscot County.