The state’s watchdog, the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability, was born in 2005 with a serious dental defect.

No teeth.

Sure, the nonpartisan agency had some bark. It has received funding, guidance and — most important — time for deep investigative dives into state programs and services. It exposed deep fissures in economic programs, public safety dispatching and a host of social services, particularly regarding mental health.

But its work, though often praised by Republicans and Democrats alike, was just as often shelved. A reflexive study OPEGA did of itself in 2010 for its fifth anniversary found lawmakers implemented only one-third, and the bureaucracy only about half, of its recommendations from various studies.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

So, this spurred another round of political hand-wringing about whether the smallish agency — it has fewer than 10 employees — had the right mission, as if OPEGA’s ineffectiveness was a failure of the agency, instead of its legislative minders.

After the astounding revelations of the inner workings of the Maine Turnpike Authority, and this week’s public mea culpa from the state’s finance chief about a questionable land transaction in Thomaston, I think we have our answer.

The system seems fine. And OPEGA was never the real problem.

Instead, the agency’s legislative overseers — the Government Oversight Committee — have been a feckless bunch. OPEGA could not wish its work into action; that would requires some political capital which has, in the past, been woefully unspent.

This has changed over the past year, when some leaders emerged to make this whole watchdog effort worthwhile.

Sen. Dawn Hill, a Democrat from York, led the charge against MTA while on the committee. What started with a tollbooth gripe has turned into a lawsuit against the MTA’s deposed leader, Paul Violette, seeking to recoup $450,000 in agency funds.

And Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta and now chairman of the oversight Committee, has since taken the unprecedented step of — gasp! — bringing officials like Violette before the committee to answer questions about questionable behavior.

This week’s guest was Sawin Millett, the state’s finance commissioner, who assumed responsibility for the quiet sale of three state-owned homes in Thomaston to Patricia Barnhart, warden of the Maine State Prison, for the quizzical price of $175,000.

(Aside: I’m not among the chorus who are infuriated about the sale price vs. the land’s assessed value of $438,000.

That assessment is fiction. What irks me is that the property is adjacent to one of the largest commercial/residential developments planned in the Midcoast: Thomaston Green, on the former prison property.)

As a litigator, Katz deserves credit for making the oversight committee behave like — gasp, again! — a committee with oversight. The aggressive subpoenaing of Violette and unhesitating investigation of the land deal gives the panel some overdue credibility.

Folks in the Legislature can have difficulty doing things to inspire public confidence. I remember the tortuous debate about ethics reform a few years ago that went practically nowhere. It descended into arguments about definitions, instead of principles.

OPEGA and the oversight committee were locked in the same spiral. So much effort was spent on determining process that the products — good, thoughtful, tough questions about the efficiency of government programs — were ignored.

It’s like the Legislature has been staring at a crowbar for five years and arguing what color it should be, instead of just using it for what it was made for.

As recently as last year, some lawmakers thought OPEGA was better designed as an aggressive accountant. It would scrutinize state spending and recommend cuts and efficiencies, akin to the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Yet this would not have resolved lingering problems with state watchdoggery. Another entity making recommendations that could be swept aside easily in the interest of political expediency wouldn’t have helped matters.

What’s been needed is a more robust, serious effort toward accountability by the folks elected to deliver it. All the attention on OPEGA has been misplaced, or misdirected, and scrutiny on the lawmakers tasked with guiding its progress has been avoided.

After six years, it looks like there’s clear purpose to OPEGA. And surprisingly enough, the agency hasn’t changed. It has the same bark it always possessed.

Finally, however, it has some lawmakers behind it with some bite.

Anthony Ronzio is editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email to [email protected]

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.