Short Relief: McCormick's departure from Maine State Housing Authority was tardy, inevitable

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The Maine State Housing Authority is charged by statute with a wide range of powers and duties. Among them are to analyze the state’s housing needs, construct and operate housing projects, clear slums and create low-income housing, buy and sell mortgages, assist with weatherization and energy efficiency programs, and to be a conduit for federal funds. In order to perform its duties, MSHA has authority to issue its own bonds.

At the end of 2010, MSHA had $1.9 billion worth of assets, the majority of which were in the form of cash, investments, mortgages and other receivable notes.

MSHA’s powers and duties are vested solely in the director of the authority.  She has a staff of 143 people and an annual operating budget of $13 million.  The director is appointed by the governor to four-year terms that are not necessarily co-terminal with the governorship, subject to review and confirmation by the Legislature.

MSHA has a board of 10 commissioners. Eight of the commissioners are appointed by the governor to four-year terms. The ninth is the state treasurer. The 10th is MSHA’s director.

A 2004 performance review by EBW Associates for the Southern Maine Affordable Rental Housing Coalition observed that the director’s combination of complete control over housing policy and extraordinary independence could prove to be problematic.

Gov. John Baldacci first appointed Dale McCormick director of MSHA in 2005. His renewal of her appointment as he was leaving office in February 2010 made it impossible for his successor to replace McCormick during his first term. It was only the second time in the authority’s 36-year history that a director had been reappointed to a second term.

Since he succeeded Baldacci, Gov. Paul LePage has replaced four MSHA commissioners with his own. As their influence over the commission grew in combination with state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, so did their criticism of McCormick.  

They were critical of the director for the high cost of low-income housing, for the fact that cost wasn’t a consideration in the authority’s decision-making process, for authorizing bonuses for her staff during economic hard times for average citizens, for ignoring deteriorated conditions in housing projects, and for generally not being responsive to her board of commissioners.

McCormick disputed some of the criticisms and argued that others were disagreements over policy. Board meetings were acrimonious.

On March 20, McCormick resigned. She said that she had been under a campaign of systematic attack by commissioners who held different policy perspectives from her own, and that campaign had paralyzed the agency. She was reluctantly agreeing to an early end to her term to stop the rancor. She also expected that the Republican-dominated Legislature would reorganize the agency so that its director served at the pleasure of the board.

There is something salutary about regular, peaceful change of power. At the very least, it reminds politicians who is in charge. The structure of the executive branch of government should accommodate, not thwart, that change.  

Typically the party that wins an election is allowed to appoint its people to positions of authority so that it can pursue its policies, and so that the will of the voters as expressed at the polls can be fulfilled. The structure, appointment, and resistance to change of MSHA’s director didn’t allow that to happen.

It was a problem that had to be resolved.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.