AUGUSTA — A bill to change the way the director of the Maine State Housing Authority is hired and fired will likely be considered by lawmakers early next year.

That doesn’t mean politics should play a role in the authority’s policies, said a co-chairman of the legislative committee that oversees the housing authority.

“I think it’s important that housing policy remain above the political fray,” said Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston.

The issue was discussed Monday during a forum sponsored by the Maine Real Estate & Development Association. While much of the discussion focused on the nuts and bolts of affordable housing, panelists were asked to respond to comments made last week by Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage said the executive or legislative branch of government needs more power to oversee the independent authority. He called it a “fluke in the laws” that such oversight doesn’t exist.

“The executive director of Maine State Housing Authority has no boss until such time as the Legislature chooses to give someone some oversight,” he said at a press conference last week.

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, said he plans to ask special permission to have a bill considered to give the MaineHousing Board of Commissioners — whose nine members are appointed by the governor — more power over the director. He wants the housing authority’s structure to be more like that of other quasi-state agencies, like the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The housing authority is different because the director is not hired or fired by its board of commissioners. The director is chosen by the governor and confirmed by the Senate to a four-year term. Dale McCormick, a former Democratic state senator and state treasurer, was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci in 2010.

The turnpike authority’s director gets a one-year contract from the board of directors and can be fired by the board, said Executive Director Peter Mills, a former Republican state senator. When a new director is hired, the board’s choice must be vetted by lawmakers and voted on by the Senate. The director can be hired for additional years only with board approval.

Courtney said he hopes to restore confidence in the housing authority, after months of questions. “It’s not just this director, it’s any director,” he said. “There needs to be transparency and accountability.”

Last week, McCormick said she believes the governor already has a lot of power to control the agency.

“The governor appoints the board, the Legislature confirms the board and the board controls everything,” she said, including the budget, whether the authority can borrow money, and the rules that govern how housing projects are built.

Rector, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, which votes on all laws affecting the housing authority, said some of the questions about it stem from the way it’s organized.

“All this conversation, for me, revealed what was an anomaly of MaineHousing, that the director didn’t serve at the pleasure of the board,” he said.

Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton, a member of the same committee, said the authority is set up to be independent, “so there’s consistency, so we focus on the problems, as opposed to the political willy-nilly.”

Hunt said the authority is audited by the state and federal governments, gets very little state funding, and should remain free from the whims of politicians.

The authority, which acts as a bank for affordable-housing projects, is a $1.6 billion financial institution that can issue bonds and accept federal money for state programs. It has 143 employees and an annual operating budget of about $13 million.

In recent months, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has repeatedly criticized the authority for the cost of some of its projects, most notably Elm Terrace in Portland. The developer of that project proposed a price of $314,000 per unit, which McCormick rejected. Last week, McCormick approved a new price of $265,000 per unit for the 38-apartment project.

The criticism has made some investors leery of the authority, said Bill Shanahan, president of the Northern New England Housing Investment Fund.

“This is political,” said Shanahan, who participated in Monday’s panel discussion. “It has nothing to do with the program. To say it doesn’t have a far-reaching effect would be an understatement.”

David Bateman, a developer and managing member of Bateman Partners LLC, disagreed.

“It’s not a political issue,” he said. “It’s a common sense issue. How do we make the most affordable housing with the limited resources we have?”


Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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