Eliminating outside lobbyists will save $27,000 a year and bring the turnpike authority’s lobbying policies into line with similar agencies, said spokesman Scott Tompkins. More changes are on the way.
The decision by Peter Mills, interim turnpike director, in consultation with the turnpike board follows back-to-back decisions late last week to eliminate the annual employee recognition banquet and tens of thousands of dollars in annual donations to outside organizations.
“Those were all expenses that were deemed to be inappropriate or unnecessary,” Tompkins said.
More changes are expected in the coming weeks as the turnpike re-examines operations in light of a report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, he said.
OPEGA’s disclosure that the turnpike board gave away $157,000 in gift cards from high-end hotels and restaurants and couldn’t account for the expenditures led to a firestorm of controversy. OPEGA also identified at least $454,000 in additional sponsorships and donations during a five-year period.
Criticism of turnpike spending led to the resignation of Paul Violette, longtime executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority , and subpoenas by the Legislature’s Governmental and Oversight Committee.
Former state Sen. Peter Mills was brought in to serve as interim executive director and the turnpike hired as a consultant Roger Mallar, former transportation commissioner under three administrations. Mallar and Mills are working with the board on a top-to-bottom review of operations.
Among other changes, the turnpike authority last week agreed to separate project management and engineering contracts instead of using the same firm for both. The turnpike now will handle project management in house and will put engineering contracts out for competitive bid.
Regarding lobbyists, the turnpike came under fire for its practice of hiring outsiders to lobby lawmakers and policymakers, activities that now will be handled by turnpike staff, Tompkins said.
But Tompkins said OPEGA overstated the amount of money spent on lobbying by the turnpike. OPEGA said the lobbying figure was $577,237 during the five-year period it examined, but the figure was actually $133,689, Tompkins said. The remainder was related to other costs such as consulting and legal fees, he said.
Mills said swift action is sending a message. “It’s another clear signal the Maine Turnpike Authority Board is committed to bringing more transparency and accountability to the agency,” he said in a statement.