BRUNSWICK, Maine — Brian Whitney, director of business development and innovation for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, will serve as the acting director of the Maine Technology Institute, whose president, Bob Martin, was fired abruptly Thursday by Gov. Paul LePage.
The institute’s board of directors approved Whitney’s temporary assignment during a meeting Monday afternoon.
In his role as acting director, Whitney will be able to sign as MTI’s authorized representative on grant and loan awards from the state-funded nonprofit.
Board Chairwoman Linda Diou, general manager of Meridian Life Science in Manchester, said she has no concerns about MTI’s loan and grant programs proceeding as normal through the transition to a permanent president.
“They are a very competent group,” Diou said of MTI’s nine other board members and the seven separate boards that advise the agency in its seven target industry sectors.
The Legislature created the Maine Technology Institute in 1999 to support research and development for technology companies and startups in the state. Since 2000, the institute has funded 1,295 technology projects in Maine, “a financial commitment of $106 million that has leveraged over $173 million in additional funding for a total of $280 million,” according to its website.
Prior to his most recent stint at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Whitney served from 2005 to 2012 as director of outreach and economic development for Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. Before that, he was a business development specialist in the DECD after serving in 2002 as chief of staff for then-Maine Senate President Rick Bennett, now chairman of the Maine Republican Party.
In its meeting Monday, the institute’s board also approved the formation of an “executive committee” to advise Whitney as he takes the helm following Martin’s abrupt departure. The committee includes Diou, David Erb of the University of Maine’s composites program, Timothy Nightingale of Camden National Bank, University of Maine Vice President for Innovation and Economic Development Jake Ward, and Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais.
The executive committee also will review applicants for the permanent post as president of MTI, a position that is within the Maine DECD and serves at the pleasure of the governor, who must nominate a permanent successor to Martin. That nomination is subject to Maine Senate approval.
The Legislature is not scheduled to return to session until January 2015, after a November election that will change the makeup — and potentially the power structure — of the Maine House and Senate.
Jeff Marks, executive director of E2Tech, a trade association of companies in the energy and environmental technology sector, last week praised Martin’s leadership at MTI and said Monday night in an email to the Bangor Daily News that Whitney is a “logical” person to lead the institute.
“He has considerable experience in connecting innovators with opportunity and likely shares the Governor’s philosophy that the government should provide a business-friendly environment, facilitate the connections and then get out of the way,” Marks wrote.
LePage’s administration has remained silent about its reasons for firing Martin. Gervais reiterated Monday he could not reveal any reasons for the firing or its timing, saying it is a personnel matter.
Martin said Thursday in a statement to the Bangor Daily News he “sought to challenge the status quo, remain apolitical and fiercely defended the independent status of the organization and the rules for its investments.”
Colleagues, a technology trade industry official and others said they were surprised by the announcement. Diou, chairwoman of MTI’s board, said she had no information about Martin’s firing other than the governor’s prepared statement stating it was a “personnel matter.”
That level of secrecy prompted a group of Democratic leaders in the Maine Legislature to write a letter to the governor Monday seeking more information. The letter, signed by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, Rep. Erin Herbig and Sens. Linda Valentino and John Patrick, asks the governor for a meeting.
Herbig and Patrick co-chair the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. Valentino chairs the Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future.
“A Department of Economic and Community Development report earlier this year praised MTl’s return on investment, and our work on the committee confirmed that it is by far one of the best tools to create jobs and foster economic growth,” the letter states. “Given the vital nature of this organization and the importance of its leader, we would like to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss why you felt this change needed to be made and what your plans are for finding and appointing a new president.”
Berry is vice president for international development at Micro Technologies, a Richmond-based company that received MTI funding as recently as June. It does business under the name Kennebec River Biosciences Inc.
A spokesperson for the governor was not immediately available for comment on the letter after 5 p.m. Monday. LePage has regularly rebuffed requests by Democratic lawmakers to meet with him, though he did hold a meeting with Senate President Justin Alfond, House Speaker Mark Eves and House Republican Leader Ken Fredette last week.