Review of a bill seeking more accountability from the Maine State Housing Authority halted when legislators faced a proposal that would allow embattled MSHA Director Dale McCormick to complete her term of office.
A proposal in LD 1778, “An Act Relating to the Governance of the Maine State Housing Authority,” would delay implementation of the bill’s reforms until February 3, 2014—guaranteeing that the beleaguered housing director could serve out her full term.
Members of the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development reviewed the bill with little debate until they reached the proposal that would allow McCormick to complete her second term of office. Rather than resolve the issue, the committee moved to continue the work session on Tuesday, March 6.
The proposal to delay implementation of the bill came from MSHA Communications Director Peter Merrill, who is employed by McCormick. Merrill first mentioned this suggested amendment when he testified at the public hearing for LD 1778. Representative John Tuttle (D-Sanford), the ranking minority member on the committee, authored the summary of the bill’s proposals, which included the delay to keep McCormick in office.
No explanation was given as to why Tuttle took the lead over the work session. He had been one of two Democratic co-sponsors of the bill who had withdrawn support without explanation.
Tuttle stated that delaying implementation of the bill until 2014 was an attempt to keep the politics out of the process. “Leaving the date of 2014 is putting politics in, not taking them out,” said Representative Amy Volk (R-Scarborough).
“Is this a piece of good governance or not?” asked Committee Chair Chris Rector (R-Knox County). If so, then he recommended that the bill be implemented in a timely manner.
Bill proponent Carol Weston, a former state senator who now heads the Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity, was one of a surprisingly large number of people who turned out at the work session, given the harsh driving conditions caused by the March 1 snowstorm. State workers were being sent home as the work session opened.
Weston expressed frustration with the continuance of the work session. “Every day more information makes us understand that the commissioners need more control over what’s going on at MSHA,” she said. “The extra delay isn’t helping Maine people.”
The Maine State Housing Authority is one of approximately a dozen quasi-governmental “instrumentalities” in the state created by an act of the Legislature to carry out essential public purposes. MSHA is the only state instrumentality whose executive director is not accountable to its board.
Unclear in the proposed bill is the term of office for the housing director. The four-year term seems to have been eliminated. When asked if the term was simply to be left open-ended, Courtney said it was his intention for the board of commissioners to conduct an annual review. Without the final wording, it’s not clear how many years a MSHA director would be able to serve.
Also murky are the grounds for the commissioners to remove the director. The stated intent of the bill—to institute a provision that the director serve at the pleasure of the commissioners—stipulates that the director can be released only for neglect of duty or misconduct.
Tuttle’s proposal that the housing director should also be hired by the MSHA board of commissioners fell flat. Rector objected to Tuttle’s recommendation, since the power to appoint a director now rests in the governor’s office. His stipulation that the responsibility should remain with the governor received no objection from Tuttle.
Senator Jon Courtney (R-York County), the bill sponsor, is optimistic the bill will move out of committee with a unanimous “ought to pass.” He said he intends to attach an emergency preamble that would waive the traditional 90-day waiting period for implementation, allowing the bill to take effect immediately.
Other proposals in the bill passed with little debate. One was the deletion of references to an advisory board—an entity not part of the MSHA system for a number of years.
Another proposal would simplify language about duties of the commissioners, and another would bestow voting rights on the chairperson of the commissioners, in conformance with Robert’s Rules of Order. The chairperson now votes only to break a tie.
Some of the proposed changes appear to strip commissioners of power regarding the ability to revise policies at the Housing Authority, in areas such as standards of issuing, servicing and redeeming bonds, purchasing mortgage notes and other substantive financial details.
Another proposal—to stagger the terms of the commissioners—was merely a housekeeping issue that met with no disagreement from committee members.
The follow-up work session for LD 1778 will take place at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6 before the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development in Room 208 of the Cross Building, next to the Maine State House in Augusta.