April 25, 2018
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University system didn’t follow policy in hiring top staffers

By John Christie and Naomi Schalit, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Hiring records from the University of Maine System show loopholes, waivers and personal connections played roles in the appointments of seven officials into some of the highest-paying nonteaching jobs in the system.

Six of the seven worked for the same state agency during Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, and the seventh, Meg Weston, was a member of the system’s board of trustees.

The current and past chairmen of the board both said that while they believe there was no improper influence in most of the hires, a review of the process is warranted.

And the new chancellor of the system, James Page, said he will add the hiring issue to a review he is doing of recent questions involving system pay raises.

“I take the allegations and concerns very seriously, but I’m not prepared to say what the strengths of those allegations and concerns are,” Page said. “Everything will be looked at.”

For three jobs — two of which oversee multimillion-dollar budgets — the system directly hired former state staffers, meaning there was no customary search for the best-qualified people.

Each of those job openings was given emergency status, which allowed the system to waive a policy that requires openings be advertised and a search conducted.

A spokesman said there is no record on the total number of search waivers that have been granted by the University of Maine System.

Former state officials were given jobs even though they did not have the college degrees the system listed as requirements or were not ranked as the top candidate.

In another case, a member of the system’s board of trustees resigned from the board and a month later applied for and subsequently was given a $137,000 job at the University of Southern Maine. Officials say this appearance of impropriety prompted the board to approve a new conflict-of-interest ethics policy requiring a one-year waiting period.

Excluding benefits, the annual payroll for the seven positions is $898,000.

No ‘inside baseball’

The seven hired are Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor of administration and finance; Ryan Low, the system’s chief lobbyist; Ellen Schneiter, vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maine at Augusta; Richard Thompson, chief information officer for the system; M.F. “Chip” Gavin, director of facilities management and general services for UMS; Elaine Clark, former executive director for facilities and real estate at the Orono campus; and Weston, vice president for advancement at the University of Southern Maine.

Most of the seven positions were approved by the trustees, who are appointed by the governor.

Richard Pattenaude was chancellor of the UMaine system while six of the seven appointments were made, some of them by him personally. He retired from the position earlier this year.

“No job was ever created for anyone … all are performing at the highest level,” Pattenaude said.

The hiring questions come on the heels of another personnel controversy in the system. The Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News revealed that the system gave millions of dollars in discretionary pay raises in recent years while facing multimillion-dollar budget cuts.

Page, who took over on March 20, has said the pay raise reports troubled him and new discretionary raises were suspended or require his approval while he looks into the issue.

Joe Wishcamper, who was chairman of the system’s board of trustees when most of the seven appointments were made, acknowledged that shortcuts may have been taken to hire people who already were known to the system from their state government work.

Although he believes none were the result of “inside baseball,” Wishcamper said, the hiring process raises “legitimate concerns and those concerns should be aired and reforms and changes made to take them into account.”

The hiring pattern was discovered in documents provided by the system in response to a Freedom of Access Act request by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and the BDN.

UMS hiring procedures not followed

Wyke was hired without a job posting or job search. She had been commissioner of the Department of Administration and Financial Services while Baldacci was governor.

In 2008, Baldacci nominated Wyke to become CEO of the Finance Authority of Maine. When the UMS job became available, she withdrew her nomination and took the system job.

In 2012, Wyke was one of three finalists to be the new chancellor of the system. The job went to James Page.

“Becky was probably the best hire in the system in the 10 years I have been on the board,” said Wishcamper, who was chairman of the board of trustees when Wyke was appointed.

Low was hired as vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maine at Farmington without a posting or search. He held Wyke’s position of state Department of Administration and Financial Services commissioner after she went to the system job.

Low since has been promoted to the system’s chief lobbyist after a job search limited to only other university system employees.

Ellen Schneiter was named vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maine at Augusta after a job search, but her degree is not in the field required by the job description. Schneiter held the Department of Administration and Financial Services commissioner’s position after Low left.

Thompson, the university system’s chief information officer, was hired without a posting or job search. He was hired despite having only a high school education.

Thompson had been chief information officer in the Baldacci administration and won a national award for his work for the state in 2009.

Gavin went from being director of the state Bureau of General Services to director of facilities management and general services for UMS. He was hired despite not having a degree in any of the required fields, such as engineering.

“We didn’t need an engineer for this job … The search committee must have looked at this and determined he met the requirements,” said Tracy Bigney, the system’s chief human resources officer.

Gavin also received a mostly critical report from the system’s own search committee.

Clark was hired despite being rated No. 3 and No. 5 in search committee documents. She had been director of general services for the state.

Clark since has left the job managing facilities for the University of Maine.

Weston was hired despite having no professional experience in fundraising. She applied for the job one month after resigning from the UMS board of trustees, prompting a new ethics policy requiring a year’s waiting period for moving from the board to a paid job in the system.

She was appointed to the board by Gov. Angus King and was reappointed by Gov. Baldacci.

Two of the seven officials responded to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s request for comment. Low and Weston both said they believe they were qualified for their jobs.

Baldacci, responding to questions by email, wrote, “The men and women who serve at the top levels of Maine government are some of the most qualified in the state and have numerous opportunities for employment. I’m proud that members of my administration decided to continue public service when they could have found much more lucrative employment in the private sector.”

Howard Segal, a professor of history at the University of Maine at Orono for the past 26 years, is a member of the Faculty Senate. He said the hires confirmed his belief that at the upper levels of the University of Maine System “education is not the issue — political power is.”

“It’s terrible business-as-usual, and it’s outrageous,” he said. “These are my tax dollars, and I’m infuriated.”

Policies have leeway

The system’s hiring policy manual states, “It is impermissible to hire an individual who does not meet the state minimum qualifications.”

Former Chancellor Pattenaude and Human Resources Chief Bigney said the rules allow leeway, even with the minimum standards policy.

“When you get to a senior level,” said Pattenaude, “experience weighs as much or more than a degree from years ago.”

“We are usually quite careful to say relevant experience can be substituted for education,” Bigney said.

However, none of the job qualification documents provided to the Center by the system’s office state that experience can be substituted for educational requirements.

Wishcamper, who is president of a real estate development firm, likened some of the system hires to his personal experience in business, in which an applicant who you already know is a “lower risk” than other applicants.

“To some extent, decisions were probably made here to take shortcuts in the process rather than the full-blown process the policy called for,” Wishcamper said. “My impression is there was probably someone available who we really wanted.”

Michelle Hood, who is now chairwoman of the UMS trustees, said she is confident the hires were made wisely but she did not recall details of any of the hires except Low.

“I certainly plan to talk with the board and chancellor about some concerns some people might have about this to make sure we’re being as transparent as we can be,” Hood said.

Bangor Daily News reporter Nick McCrea contributed to this story.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.

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