This just in: The Maine Turnpike Authority found itself back in the news last week — and it was all good.

A quick recap:

Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel E. Wathen drew widespread acclaim as Gov. Paul LePage’s choice to take over as chairman of the authority’s board of directors.

The Maine House of Representatives unanimously approved a reform package that transforms the once-secretive agency into a model of transparency and fiscal accountability.

The turnpike’s $114 million budget for calendar year 2012 won a strong endorsement from the Legislature’s Transportation Committee (which only a month ago listened in stony silence while former turnpike Executive Director Paul Violette deflected their questions with his constitutional right against self-incrimination).

And oh yes, while sky-high gas prices are expected to put a modest 6 percent dent in this weekend’s Memorial Day tourist migration, the heavy northbound traffic heralds the long-awaited start, thank God, of another Maine summer.

Can we say “back to normal”?

“No, we’re not back to normal,” replied interim Executive Director Peter Mills with a cautionary smile Friday. “I’ve got a lot of work to do here.”

He’s not kidding. And true to form, the former state senator from Cornville and two-time Republican candidate for governor has thrown himself headlong into doing it.

Many considered the turnpike authority already in its death throes back in March when Mills took over the reeling agency on the heels of Violette’s scandal-driven departure.

An investigation by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, while generally lauding the authority as a well-organized and fiscally sound operation, also touched off a political firestorm with its revelations of lavish, undocumented spending on meals and travel by Violette and other top turnpike officials.

Add to that the now-infamous $157,000 in gift cards that Violette handed out to trade organizations, charitable groups and … well, we’ll wait for an ongoing investigation by the Maine Attorney General’s Office to fill in the rest of those blanks.

In short, Mills walked into a disaster. And waiting to greet him, he said, were “people in key financial positions who were happy to start doing their jobs again.”

And what, pray tell, had kept them from doing their jobs back before the wheels came off?

“I think a lot of it came down to a single individual who had an unusual degree of control,” Mills replied tactfully. “An individual who was able to concentrate power and insulate himself to some degree from the board.”

Mills, it should be noted, begins any conversation about the OPEGA report by noting it “spends 95 percent of its time talking about what a successful organization this is.”

That said, he also understands why, when the report came out last winter, public attention focused laser-like on the gift cards and other extravagances.

“It’s on Page 57 of the report, and everyone went right to it,” he said. “It was like looking for the word ‘sex’ in a big novel.”

But all of that, at least for Mills, is fast fading in the rearview mirror.

Two-and-a-half months into his learning curve, he now finds himself immersed in a pedal-to-the-metal agenda that ranges from better relations in Augusta to high-speed tolls in Kittery to transforming the turnpike into “a red-carpet reception for people coming into Maine.”

On the political front, many still argue that the turnpike should be folded into the Maine Department of Transportation, which, under the reform bill now on its way to the Senate, would get 5 percent of the turnpike’s annual revenue for roadwork and other projects in and around the turnpike corridor.

Mills maintains, however, that the authority’s strong standing in the bond markets, not to mention its $400 million debt load, present an equally strong case for preserving it apart from the rest of state government.

“The strength of this organization is its isolation from politics. That also came close to being its downfall,” he said. “We recognize that balance is crucial to our survival and success.”

On the future of toll collections, Mills sees a high-speed “automatic electronic toll” system on Maine’s horizon similar to the one now in place at Interstate 95’s Hampton toll plaza in New Hampshire.

But he stops short of advocating, as some do, the complete elimination of those clunky, pay-by-cash tollbooths for motorists without an E-ZPass transponder attached to their windshield.

Recapturing this toll revenue, Mills warns, particularly from the 50 percent of the turnpike traffic that comes in from out of state, would be difficult at best.

Then there’s Mills’ latest pet peeve — the turnpike’s woefully untapped potential for promoting Maine’s economy.

While the newly constructed turnpike service plazas in Kennebunk, Cumberland, Gray and West Gardiner are all pleasant, state-of-the-art facilities, Mills said, “nothing inside them gives you any indication that you’re even in Maine.”

Hence Mills’ recent sit-down with a representative from HMS Host, the national firm that runs the plazas through a 30-year lease with the authority, to talk about “using some of the space down there to promote things like Mount Katahdin and Mount Desert and the ski areas and Maine tourism in general.”

And Mills’ recent call to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network to explore how the authority might better utilize the turnpike’s lower-power AM radio network for more than just a nonstop litany of never-changing traffic advisories.

“It’s the most repetitive, boring thing you’ve ever heard in your life,” Mills said. “Why can’t we put (MPBN morning host) Suzanne Nance on there and talk about what’s going on up the road with the Yarmouth Clam Festival or the Bangor Folk Festival? I’m immensely frustrated by the lost opportunity of putting this all together.”

He could — and does — go on. And while his current appointment extends only through early September, Mills said he’s ready, willing and able to stay on longer.

“I’ve invested two months in learning some very complex things — and I can perceive some adjustments and changes I’d like to make that will take time to do,” Mills said. “So why not take advantage of what I’ve learned and exploit me?”

You heard that right, folks — a turnpike executive director who wants us to exploit him rather than the other way around.

And whose anything-but-extravagant lunch on Friday — at his desk, no less — consisted of a small salad and a banana.

Now that’s good news.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]