AUGUSTA – The state lacks guidelines for sales of its properties and has not consistently notified the public when properties have become available, a review by the state’s watchdog office shows.

Beth Ashcroft, executive director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told lawmakers Tuesday that the review showed that only 13 of 49 properties sold by the state in the past five years were marketed publicly. 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 says.

Ashcroft said extenuating circumstances in 33 of the 36 sales that weren’t publicly marketed led her staff to believe there may have been good reason not to advertise them. They included sales to neighbors to resolve a septic system or boundary issue; sales to other public entities; sales back to the original owners or heirs; and sales to people who already had substantial investments in the property.

Some lawmakers questioned whether it should be permissible for any deals to be completed without 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, public notice.

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

Ashcroft’s office did its review at the direction of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which investigated the sale of land and three houses in Thomaston in June to the warden of the Maine State Prison.

The property was never marketed to the public, and the sale was later declared void by the state attorney general because it violated a law that prohibits state employees from having a financial interest in state contracts.

The 5-acre property on Ship Street Circle was sold to Warden Patricia Barnhart for $175,000, well below its assessed tax value of $512,263. In September, the state bought the property back, paying $175,000 for the property and $2,000 to reimburse Barnhart for closing costs.

Lawmakers wanted to know if there were similar circumstances in other state property sales. Ashcroft’s investigators reviewed 49 sales over five years.

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

The department publicly marketed and gave public notice of seven properties, and had reason not to give public notice in the other 19 sales, the report says.

Some departments said they considered legislation that approved land sales to be public notice, but the 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 because it was authorized as an amendment to a larger bill regarding a different parcel.

After the sale in Thomaston, Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order requiring the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services to come up with guidelines for sales of state properties. The department’s deputy director, David Emery, told lawmakers Tuesday that those guidelines should be ready in a few weeks.

The guidelines will include provisions for public disclosure, legal notices, a review by the attorney general, and competitive bids for choosing real estate brokers, 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.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]