by Terrilyn Simpson
Supporters of the Maine State Housing accountability bill were obviously chagrined by the breaches in protocol allowed former state legislator and former Maine Housing board chair Carol Kontos as she testified at Tuesday’s legislative committee hearing.
Kontos, who touted a longtime association with the Maine State Housing Authority, was among only several LD 1778 opponents, which also included a current MSHA staff member. The roster of those supporting MSHA reform included an impressive list of building and housing industry notables, from the real estate industry to affordable housing to a statewide general contractors association. Testimony in favor also included private citizens from diverse backgrounds ranging from career military to political activism.
Senator Chris Rector (R-Knox), who chairs the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development laid down unusually strict ground rules for a public committee hearing that included members of the public not proficient at participating in the legislative process. Rector directed participants to stick strictly to the discussion of the merits of LD 1778 — the governance of the Maine State Housing Authority.
SUMMARY of LD 1778: This bill removes the provision of law that provides that the Director of the Maine State Housing Authority serves a 4-year term of office. The bill provides that the director does not have a term of office and that the director serves at the pleasure of the commissioners of the Maine State Housing Authority. It also removes the provision of law that states that the powers and duties of the Maine State Housing Authority, with certain exceptions, are vested solely in the Director of the Maine State Housing Authority. (Sponsored by Senator Jon Courtney. R-York)
And Rector emphasized he would enforce his directive — which he did, with one marked exception. While proponents of LD 1778 were admonished to steer clear of politics, finances and personalities as topics not germane to the debate over the governance of the Maine State Housing Authority, Kontos, speaking in opposition, slammed a target in every category. And then she drove it home.
“I realize that legislation sponsored by House and Senate leadership and committee leadership has a very strong chance of passing,” testified Kontos. “I also know that this committee recommended to the Senate the appointment of the four new commissioners, and that those of you in the majority party elected the state treasurer.”
Rector, who had interrupted several speakers more than once, forcing them to self-edit their remarks so significantly their verbal presentations were gutted of both substance and punch, became surprisingly preoccupied when Kontos stepped to the podium.
Having established that it was the majority party responsible for both the new MSHA commissioners and the new state treasurer, Kontos taunted, “And I am keenly aware of the influence of a majority party in ensuring that their policy priorities are reflected in governance structures and, to a certain degree, in personnel decisions.”
Rector, who had disallowed the less pointed wording of proponents, did not look up from whatever occupied his attention on the desktop before him.
“However,” continued Kontos, “irrespective of those realities, I do want you to know that there are other perspectives on the recent furor generated by the newly selected members of the board of commissioners, by the current state treasurer and by spokespersons from the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”
That the state treasurer and the Maine Heritage Policy Center were not germane topics of discussion to the bill at hand — having to do with the governance of the Maine State Housing Authority — seemed not to catch the attention of the committee chair who had singled out similar points as not appropriate with other speakers just a few minutes previous.
It did, however, capture the attention of members of the audience, including longtime political activist Mary Adams of Garland who had testified earlier. Adams, seated just behind and slightly to the side of the podium, extracted, amazingly, a gavel from her bag of paperwork and jabbed at the air in an attempt to get Rector’s attention. Rector, after conscientiously monitoring previous speakers and interrupting several, did not look up.
Contacted later, Adams explained the gavel was just something she kept with her so she’d be prepared for another meeting she chaired.
Offering expertise on the quality and psyche of the 140-plus member staff of the housing authority, Kontos volunteered, “The staff at Maine Housing are exceptional — and deserve your gratitude and praise. This turmoil has been unsettling to them.”
Kontos continued on to discuss MSHA audits, ad hoc committees, Department of Labor categories, HUD conflict of interest standards…She wondered if the legislation might be “a solution in search of a problem…premature given the OPEGA review just ordered…” Rector had ordered speakers away from the discussion of topics to be taken up by other committees, such as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability which has launched an investigation into the appropriateness of a lengthy list of Maine Housing expenditures including pricey hotels, entertainment venues and perks such as personal massages.
Adams waved her gavel.
“What if the vendor charges made public recently are deemed appropriate and defensible?” challenged Kontos. “What if the attitudes of the new commissioners toward the executive can be attributed to personality and/or political differences?” No buzzer went off. No Rector looked up.
Given Rector’s editing of their testimonies, members of the public looked frustrated. Adams gaveled at air, attempting to get the attention of Rector, who appeared oblivious.
Committee member Timothy Driscoll, a Democratic representative from Westbrook, did interrupt the proceedings, however, to direct a public dressing down at Adams, for what he termed the disrespect being shown Kontos. That Kontos had strayed far from the confines of the ground rules set at the onset of the hearing was not acknowledged by Driscoll, who had exhibited a marked impatience with and incomprehension of earlier proponent testimonies.
Kontos was allowed to continue on in a lengthy dissertation of political insults. It was not until her conclusion that Chairperson Rector acknowledged he had given her latitude he had afforded no one else. He offered no explanation.
Also testifying at the hearing was the Maine Housing Director of Communications and Planning, Peter Merrill, who offered to assist committee members in the upcoming work session. Claiming a stance neither for nor against, Merrill recommended a series of alterations to the bill that would, if adopted, result in a markedly different document. He suggested a series of technical changes to clean up wording, one that included a recommendation for staggering the terms of commissioners, one to take power to hire the MSHA director away from the governor and give it to the commissioners, and then Merrill delivered the punchline.
“We would propose an effective date for this bill of February 3, 2014,” concluded Merrill offhandedly. The date would insure that current MSHA director Dale McCormick would remain accountable to no one and that her administration would remain in place.
The smaller than anticipated number in attendance at the hearing was blamed on hazardous weather conditions. Adams, noting she’d felt quite brave in her determination to reach the meeting, said that “Maine is the only state to use and tolerate this twisted, director-centered aberration of centralized control. I’m reminded of Alice in Wonderland when looking at the unrestrained power of the director, with all power of the agency vested in one unelected person.” Urging adoption of the legislation, Adams said that given the “very limited roles” of the MSHA board members, “I don’t know how they found anyone willing to drive to Augusta to be forced to sit there like tailor’s dummies.”
Testified Pem Schaeffer of Brunswick, “The scale of MSHA operations is simply too great to permit it to function without significant checks and balances. There are too many opportunities and temptations for using other people’s money to promote peripheral agendas in the name of the public good. Taxpayer funds on this scale should not be granted to an autonomous authority for disposition.”
Said Patricia Egan of Rockport, “We are engaged in theatre of the absurd. It is absurd to imagine that previous legislatures so structured the position of director…that he or she would be accountable to no one…It is equally absurd that a board to oversee that authority was created with no power whatsoever to influence its operation or the decisions and behavior of its director.”
Testifying on behalf of the Affordable Housing Coalition, Rick McCarthy represented the agency’s stance overall neither for nor against but definitely in favor of making the director accountable to the board of commissioners “which is the arrangement in 38 other state housing finance agencies.”
Bruce Sedgwick of Jefferson urged passage of the bill. “Every tax-paying citizen has a right to know that their hard earned dollars…are being professionally managed and properly accounted for…Very often it seems that many public employees forget that their funding is derived from money earned by the taxpayers. Coupled with that forgetfulness, we currently have an absence of accountability…”
Carol Weston, speaking for Americans for Prosperity, called LD 1778 a necessary solution to a real problem — “How to match the authority over billions of taxpayer dollars with accountability. The solution: make sure the people who have discretion over spending someone else’s money also are accountable to the people giving up that money.”
Attorney Andrea Cianchette Maker, speaking for the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, testified “on behalf of MERDA in qualified support” of the bill. Cianchette Maker defined the membership of the organization as representing “all aspects of the real estate development industry” in the state, “including for-profit and not-for-profit rental housing developers, land owners, builders, property managers and other related service providers who are committed to supporting responsible development and real estate ownership throughout Maine.”
Maker said the Real Estate Association agrees “some changes to the governance structure could help to provide more stable investment and operating environments” for those involved with the Maine Housing Authority. And, she said, “MERDA supports the language that proposes that the Director…serve at the pleasure of the commissioners…” The substantive change to the bill the organization proposes is that the director be hired by the commissioners rather than the governor.
Sabattus resident Les Gibson was not allowed to deliver much of his testimony, a penalty imposed by Rector for mentioning MSHA Director Dale McCormick by name, for referencing the financial questions currently plaguing the housing authority and for making political references. Struggling to self-edit his written testimony as he stood before legislators, Gibson concluded, “During my 20-plus year military career I was held accountable for my every action. As I obtained rank and was placed in positions of leadership, responsible for the lives of my brothers and sisters in arms, and millions of dollars in equipment, that accountability grew exponentially. Should the Maine State Housing Director be held to any fewer standards? I think not.”
The Associated General Contractors of Maine, described by CEO John O’Dea, as “a statewide construction trade association representing over 200 general contractors, specialty contractor and construction-related firms in the state,” gave its unequivocal support for LD 1778. “Over the past decade, our association has spent an inordinate amount of time addressing issues with MSHA. Whether green building standards, On the Job Training requirements, so-called contractor standards and other bits of social engineering, it appears as though MSHA is concerned with many things that go beyond the development of affordable housing.”
Emphasized O’Dea, “Our concern is that the current governance structure vests a great deal of power in the Executive Director and there is very little opportunity for redress from the Board or (the) public.”
In encouraging committee members to support the bill, O’Dea urged them “to seek out the professionals in your communities who deal with affordable housing and ask them whether MSHA as it is currently constituted is responsive to their needs.”
If, he said, legislators’ conversations were like his, “then you will likely find that the current governance structure has contributed to a culture where MSHA acts unilaterally and without the type of accountability that is commonly expected in the public and private sectors.”