AUGUSTA — The state lacks guidelines to govern the sale of state properties and has not consistently notified the public when a property is available, a review by the state’s watchdog office showed.

Beth Ashcroft, executive director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told lawmakers Tuesday that a review by her office showed that only 13 of 49 properties sold by the state in the last five years were publicly marketed. Her office defined public marketing as “actively soliciting potential buyers from the general public.”

“OPEGA found there are no statutory requirements for departments to publicly market state-owned properties and, with the exception of the (Bureau of Parks and Lands), there are also no requirements to give public notice of intended sales,” the review concluded.

However, Ashcroft said extenuating circumstances in 33 of the 36 sales that lacked public marketing led her staff to believe there may have been good reason not to advertise the sale. Those included sales to abutters to resolve a septic system or boundary issue; sales to other public entities; sales back to the original owner or an heir, and sales to those who already had substantial investments on the property.

Yet some lawmakers questioned whether it should be permissible for any deals to be completed without at least some public notice.

“I can’t think of any reason not to at least have some minimum standards,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. “You only looked back five years. That’s a very short window of opportunity.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he was concerned about the number of properties sold without any public marketing or in some cases, any public notice.

“I don’t know if there’s ever a good reason not to give public notice,” he said.

Ashcroft’s office completed the review at the direction of legislators on the Government Oversight Committee, which recently investigated the details of a land sale in Thomaston. In that case, three state-owned homes were never marketed to the public and were sold to the warden of the Maine State Prison. The sale was later declared void by the state attorney general because it violated a law the prohibits state employees from having a financial interest in state contracts.

The five acres on Ship Street Circle was sold to Warden Patricia Barnhart for $175,000, which was well below the town tax assessment value of $512,263. In September, the state bought the properties back from Barnhart, paying $175,000 for the properties and $2,000 to reimburse her for closing costs.

Following the Thomaston sale, lawmakers wanted to know if similar circumstances existed in other state property sales. Ashcroft’s investigators reviewed 49 sales over five years.

Of those, 26 were at the Department of Transportation, which is “the only state department with well-established, formal policies and procedures for conducting real estate transactions,” according to an information brief written by OPEGA staff.

The DOT publicly marketed and gave public notice of seven properties, and had reason not to give public notice in the other 19 sales, the report found. Some departments said they considered legislation that approved land sales to be public notice, but the OPEGA investigators disagreed.

As an example, the Bureau of Parks and Lands sold 7.53 acres on Upper Richardson Lake for more than $800,000 in 2007, but it would have been difficult for the public to be aware of the sale. That’s because it was authorized as an amendment to a larger bill regarding a different parcel of land.

Following the Thomaston sale, Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order requiring the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services to come up with a set of guidelines for the sale of state properties. Deputy DAFS Director David Emery told lawmakers Tuesday that those guidelines should be ready in a few weeks.

“The bottom line is openness and transparency,” he said.

The guidelines will include provisions for public disclosure, legal notices, a review by the attorney general, and competitive bids for choosing a real estate broker to handle transactions, he said.

“Really, what it comes down to is common sense,” he said. “But we need to put those in a place where we don’t overlook them.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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