With McCormick out, MaineHousing board chairman plans agency overhaul

Posted March 21, 2012, at 6:09 p.m.
Last modified March 22, 2012, at 5:33 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Following Tuesday’s resignation of Maine Housing Authority Executive Director Dale McCormick, the chairman of the agency’s board of directors said they’ll be looking for one thing: information.

“We’ll talk to the staff, find out who works on what, what resources they have, what’s the return,” said Peter Anastos, a well-known developer and hotelier who was appointed to head the board last fall by Gov. Paul LePage. “We think we can save a lot of money, run it way more efficiently and hopefully get a lot more people served. I think we’ll get there relatively quickly.”

McCormick’s resignation capped a tumultuous half-year at the housing agency. Both the agency and McCormick, a holdover appointment from former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, have been targets of increased scrutiny and criticism from conservative groups and new members of the board appointed by LePage.

On Tuesday at a board meeting, McCormick read from a statement that the agency “has been subjected to a systematic attack that’s ground the important work of the agency nearly to a halt.” She said she resigned reluctantly, hoping to bring an end to the “campaign against an agency that so ably serves low- and middle-income Mainers.”

Board meetings had grown increasingly contentious, as it became obvious that both McCormick and Anastos were frustrated with their exchanges.

On Wednesday, Anastos said he and the new board members had difficulty getting information about MaineHousing operations from its leadership. Anastos said he thought information would be easier to obtain going forward. Peter Merrill, director of communications and planning, was appointed acting director by the board.

“I think the other people are going to be fine to work with,” Anastos said.

A priority will be to get a new executive director hired. That position is appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

“I haven’t talked with the governor directly, but I have talked to people in his office. I’m encouraging them to hire someone who’s truly qualified in the field,” Anastos said. “It’s extremely important we don’t put somebody in there who is just a political appointment. I think the governor’s office is on the same page as us on that.”

He acknowledged that it might be difficult to find the “perfect person” for a job that entails everything from knowledge of the bonds market to housing construction details.

Anastos said as the board gets more information about the department; he expects the public to see more transparency there, and a “more business-like atmosphere.” And, he said, the goal would be to focus more closely on the department’s basic mission to provide housing for low-income Mainers.

Much of the friction between old guard and new came over policies that had been approved and encouraged by past Legislatures and boards. These included qualifiers for bid proposals that gave extra points for companies that provided training opportunities and insurance to workers, for example.

One area that Anastos expressed frustration over Wednesday was a carbon-trading program that MaineHousing was operating. It had been difficult to get answers about the program, he said.

“Frankly, selling carbon may be good. I don’t have the information to truly know. But it seems like you’re going off on a venture capital thing — and is that the role of a housing agency?” Anastos said. “Basically, we’ll get down to a simple, simple mission and do it for as many people as well as we can do it.”

In McCormick’s statement, she noted that there had been “substantial disagreement” with new board members over the policies and direction of MaineHousing. At Tuesday’s meeting, prior to announcing her resignation, McCormick strongly disputed statements made by Anastos and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who also serves on the MaineHousing board, about the carbon offset program, in particular, and their characterizations about her responses to cost inquiries, in general.

“You are inflating numbers and you know it,” McCormick said, expressing the additional frustration over what she characterized as the tendency of some board members to cast doubt on information provided them whenever it doesn’t support their position.

Anastos said the board would be looking closely at costs. Groups such as the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center have criticized the money MaineHousing spent on travel, conferences and on other services.

“We spent nearly $1 million on travel and education in 2010 — a million dollars,” Anastos said.

He said the board hoped to put as much money as possible to providing housing for low-income Mainers. He said he believed they’d be able to do that, but they needed to get a full understanding of the agency, first.

“We know the onus is on us now — we’ve got to deliver, we’ve got to get a strong executive director,” Anastos said.

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