AUGUSTA — Citing a “systematic attack” on her agency, Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick resigned Tuesday in response to prolonged pressure from Republicans who questioned spending by the agency.

“For the better part of a year, MaineHousing has been subjected to a systematic attack that’s ground the important work of the agency nearly to a halt,” she said at the end of a housing authority board meeting. “In order to bring an end to the current rancor, the board and I have concluded that it is in the best interests of the housing authority and the people of Maine to reach an agreement on an early end to my term.”

McCormick, a liberal Democrat who was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci, was supposed to serve until 2014. She had been the agency’s director since 2005.

For months, the Maine Heritage Policy Center and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin have questioned the cost of housing financed by the authority, and spending for travel, food, sponsorships and staff training.

Legislators voted late last year to authorize the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate spending by the agency, and a state senator proposed legislation to make the director report to the authority’s Board of Commissioners.

Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said Tuesday that it became clear that McCormick could no longer serve effectively.

“It was very difficult for her to manage, when you have a political laser aimed between your two eyes,” he said.

A separation agreement gives McCormick one year’s severance pay – $101,500 – in 12 installments. Also, the authority will pay health insurance costs for her and her dependents through September 2013. The payments will stop if she gets another job that provides health insurance, the agreement says.

Board Chairman Peter Anastos, who characterized the severance package as “very generous,” said McCormick and the board were going in different directions and it was best to make a change at the top.

“A lot of board members think things can be done more efficiently,” he said.

Peter Merrill, the authority’s communications and planning director, was appointed acting director. Although McCormick’s official resignation date is March 31, she is now on vacation and has turned over control to Merrill, Anastos said.

Republicans and Democrats praised McCormick for stepping aside, given the rancor in the housing authority.

Gov. Paul LePage said through his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, “it was very gracious of her to step down.”

“He wishes Dale the best and she served well, but it’s time for MSHA to move in a new direction,” Bennett said in an email.

McCormick spent months answering questions from Poliquin and the policy center. The pressure mounted in October, when commissioners appointed by LePage took a majority of the board seats.

Recent board meetings highlighted the tension, with McCormick and Republican board members arguing about basic information, talking over each other and raising their voices.

In January, McCormick said she was considering asking the accountability office to step up its review because a neutral party was needed to step into the situation.

Donald Gean, a board member who was appointed by Baldacci, said it was sad to see McCormick go.

“She’s done a phenomenal job here for seven years,” he said. “Her resignation has been done in an effort to put the agency back together. This has taken a hell of a toll on everybody here.”

Gean said there was a dramatic change when the new board began its work.

“They certainly have different ideas than the other board,” he said. “Now, with Dale out of the way, we’ll find out what the agenda is.”

McCormick, 65, of Augusta, is a former state legislator and state treasurer. She grew up in Iowa, graduated from the University of Iowa and moved to Maine in 1980. In 1988, she launched Women Unlimited, a nonprofit that trains women for jobs in construction.

In an interview in December, she said she was frustrated by accusations of overspending and an inability to communicate with board members.

“I have given Bruce Poliquin the facts many times but it doesn’t seem to move him,” she said in the interview. “What I’ve learned over the years is, when the facts don’t move someone, there’s another agenda.”

On Tuesday, Poliquin said he and others raised questions because they thought McCormick spent too much on affordable housing. MaineHousing is a $1.6 billion financial institution with 143 employees and a $13 million annual operating budget. It gets very little state funding – about $300,000 a year – but manages multiple federal programs.

“There is a new board and we are very concerned about the price of affordable apartments in Maine,” Poliquin said. “There’s clearly a new emphasis on the board to make sure we are cost-conscious.”

Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, who is sponsoring a bill to give the housing authority’s board more power to hire and fire its director, said he hopes that stalled projects – including one in his district – will move forward with new leadership.

“I’m glad we’re able to get Maine State Housing to move forward and become the economic engine it could be,” he said. “I want to commend the director for putting the well-being of the agency ahead of herself.”

McCormick, who read a statement Tuesday but did not speak to reporters, said she was proud to lead an agency that insulated more than 11,000 homes, helped first-time home buyers and built nearly 3,000 affordable apartments for senior citizens.

She submitted her resignation to LePage “reluctantly,” she said, “and in the hope that this will bring an immediate end to the campaign against an agency that so ably serves low- and middle-income Mainers.”

 

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