Housing director steps down amid growing criticism

Governor Baldacci swears in Dale McCormick at the State House in February 2010. McCormick announced her resignation as director Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
Joy Leach
Governor Baldacci swears in Dale McCormick at the State House in February 2010. McCormick announced her resignation as director Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff
Posted March 20, 2012, at 2 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Dale McCormick, the embattled executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority, announced her resignation from the post Tuesday.

McCormick, a longtime Democratic leader who had served as a state senator and then state treasurer before taking over the housing authority in 2005, had faced increasing political pressure and scrutiny from a board of directors led by appointees of Gov. Paul LePage.

Her departure was announced at the end of the board’s meeting Tuesday. Her resignation is effective March 31, but McCormick will take vacation until then, so she is effectively finished as director of the housing agency.

Peter Merrill, director of communications and planning, was appointed acting director by the board.

In a brief statement read at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, McCormick acknowledged that she and the board decided her resignation was “in the best interests of the housing authority and the people of Maine” given what she characterized as “substantial disagreement” with new board members over the policies and direction of MaineHousing.

“For the better part of a year, MaineHousing has been subjected to a systematic attack that’s ground the important work of the agency nearly to a halt,” she read from her statement. “In order to put this behind us, today I submitted to Gov. LePage my resignation, bringing an early end to my term as director of MaineHousing … I do so reluctantly, and in the hope that this will bring an immediate end to the campaign against an agency that so ably serves low- and middle-income Mainers.”

McCormick left immediately after making her statement and was unavailable for follow-up questions after the meeting.

McCormick’s term as director was not due to expire until Feb. 3, 2014.

Under the separation agreement negotiated with the MaineHousing board, she will receive severance pay “equal to one year of her most recent base salary.” McCormick was paid $101,520 in 2011, according to data gathered by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The board also agreed to pay her COBRA medical premiums until Sept. 30, 2013, or until she receives health insurance coverage from another employer if before that date.

A “no liability” clause in the agreement states unequivocally that McCormick’s early resignation is “not to be construed as an admission of error, wrongdoing or liability on the part of either MaineHousing or McCormick and that both parties expressly deny any such error, wrongdoing or liability.”

McCormick also agreed not to sue the agency.

Last October, LePage appointed and the Republican-controlled Legislature confirmed four new members of the authority’s board, including Chairman Peter Anastos, a well-known Maine developer and hotelier. Relations between McCormick and the board quickly went south.

That pressure was intensified by both State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the MSHA board, and by consistent criticism by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and its Maine Wire affiliate.

Poliquin said Tuesday after McCormick’s resignation that he thought it was “best for the disadvantaged in the state of Maine for the board to part ways with the executive director.”

“The new board has a new vision for how to help the most vulnerable among us, and that’s to be extremely cost-conscious — for example, to drive down the cost of affordable housing in the state of Maine,” said Poliquin. “It’s very important that the board and the executive director are on the same page. With our parting of the ways, we’ll be able to have a unified team going forward.”

Anastos echoed Poliquin in his comments after the meeting.

“This is the best thing for going forward, for MSHA and the people of Maine … for morale and financially as well,” he said.

One of the problems the board had with McCormick was its perceived lack of oversight of the executive director position. Under current law, the director can only be hired or fired by the governor, and only for specific reasons: “inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” Unlike other quasi-governmental bodies, the board cannot fire the executive director.

The Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee recently voted unanimously to support a bill that would give the MaineHousing board of directors the power to fire the executive director. MaineHousing and Democrats on the committee initially tried to have that bill take effect only in 2014 — when McCormick’s term is up. That provision met resistance and was dropped from the bill.

That bill has yet to be heard by the full Legislature.

In addition, lawmakers voted in late January 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. A report from that office has not yet been returned.

On Tuesday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor “wished McCormick well.”

“He looks forward to moving in a new direction,” Bennett said.

She said the governor had several candidates in mind to take over at MaineHousing but needed to talk with them about the post. LePage was leaving Wednesday for a trip to Jamaica.

“The resignation of Ms. McCormick is the first step toward a long-needed review of MSHA’s operations, and we look forward to working with the new leadership to help restore faith in the agency,” Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said in a statement. “The board of commissioners should be commended for their efforts to redirect the agency back toward its mission — to provide affordable housing for those most in need. ”

“I’ve always had confidence in Dale McCormick, I’ve always been a supporter of her’s,” said Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, the lead Democrat on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. “If she’s decided to resign, I do support her in that.”

Many of the friction points between McCormick and the new board leadership came over issues that had been decided in years past when Democrats controlled the Legislature, Blaine House and MaineHousing board of directors.

For example, MaineHousing used criteria to rank bids for projects that new board leadership felt had no place in the process. These included extra points for solar hot water heaters, using contractors that provided health insurance to their employees, or favoring those with job-training programs. Most of those criteria were stripped out in the latest round of project bid rankings.

Poliquin in particular also raised concerns over the cost per unit of some projects in urban centers such as Portland. One target of criticism was the Elm Terrace project in Portland, which had units that were projected to cost $314,000 apiece to develop. Under vociferous urging by the board, housing staff negotiated the price down to $265,000 a unit.

And in the middle of these escalating tensions, last fall the Norway-based Advertiser Democrat published a series of investigative articles that exposed substandard living conditions at MaineHousing-subsidized low-income housing units in Norway and Paris. MSHA officials, calling the conditions “disgusting,” subsequently barred the owner of the housing, 90-year-old Madeline Pratt, from participating in the Section 8 program.

Editor Jim McCarthy contributed to this report.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/20/politics/controversial-housing-director-steps-down-amid-growing-criticism/ printed on April 16, 2014