Starting date of MaineHousing legislation may offer political challenge

Posted March 01, 2012, at 5:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Thursday’s snowstorm curtailed lawmakers’ work on a bill that would make changes in the Maine State Housing Authority, and their meeting ended on a potential sticking point: when the changes should take place.

The bill, LD 1778, proposes putting more authority into the hands of MaineHousing’s board of directors, including the power to fire the quasi-governmental agency’s executive director.

That post is now a four-year term and the governor can remove the executive director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” Unlike other quasi-governmental bodies, the board cannot fire the executive director.

MaineHousing has been in the center of an increasingly intense political debate as Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and new board members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage have sought to assert their influence over leadership at the agency. Lawmakers recently voted to have the Legislature’s investigative arm look into MaineHousing’s expenses over the past five years related to memberships, contributions, travel and other areas.

On Thursday, members of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee began looking specifically at an amendment offered by Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford.

Most of the changes Tuttle’s amendment suggested were nonissues for committee members, such as having the terms of the board members staggered to avoid massive turnover.

But the last item amended the bill to have certain changes take effect only in February 2014. That’s when current MaineHousing Executive Director Dale McCormick’s term expires.

At the January 31 public hearing on the bill, Peter Merrill, MaineHousing communicators director, spoke on behalf of the agency, testifying neither in support nor in opposition of the bill. At the time, he suggested the delay in having the bill take effect, saying: “Taking people at their word that this is not about the current director, then it makes sense to have these changes take place at the end of the current term. It also addresses concerns that the firing of the director before the end of term could be considered a breach of contract.”

Tuttle on Thursday said he had put in that requirement “to remove any perception of politics in this whole situation.”

It immediately appeared to be a sticking point among Republicans on the committee.

“While I appreciate the suggestion, I would say the challenge becomes: is this a piece of good governance or is it not? If it’s a piece of good governance, then it ought to take place when it’s voted in by the Legislature,” said Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, the committee co-chairman.

Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, said, “I’d like to see it [take effect] as soon as possible.” Prescott is the committee’s other co-chairman.

Rep. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said delaying the bill for so long would take away power from the commissioners who “may feel stuck with someone they’d normally recommend would be dismissed.”

“It’s still a political football, anyway,” said Dow.

And Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, suggested that delaying the implementation is “leaving the politics in, not taking them out.”

Republicans and Democrats decided to meet separately to discuss the issue. When they returned after about 15 minutes, Tuttle said he would work more on the amendment before the continuation of the work session, scheduled for next Tuesday.

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