The resignation of longtime Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette has led to some fast-paced scrambling by the agency’s board of directors.

Board members are proposing ways that they could better oversee the organization. That, they say, might have led them to find the misuse of public funds that was sloppy at best and may have been something worse.

They say that better financial reporting might have caught the $157,000 distribution of gift cards by the MTA staff, and so might have allowing staff members to speak directly to the board instead of through top management. On the other hand, it might not have, either.

In the end, public anger and calls for legislative action were not just about gift cards, but about what those expenditures represent, which is a political organization that has been allowed to exist outside the checks and balances of government.

Violette used to refer to his organization as a business, which it resembled when it borrowed money on Wall Street to finance projects. But at the same time, the Maine Turnpike provides an essential public service and manages a resource, in the form of tolls collected from tourists and trucking companies, in which the entire state has an interest.

Reshuffling the responsibilities of a board that meets one day a month for less than two hours at a time is not enough oversight for an organization that collects $99 million in toll revenue each year.

The fact that its revenue does not come directly from the taxpayers does not make the Maine Turnpike a private business. If the board has been lax in its oversight of staff expenditures, the same can be said of past Legislatures, which have not adequately asserted their duty to raise questions about how the MTA is run and how it fits with other state priorities.

Republican lawmakers have called for a top-to-bottom review of the MTA and raised fundamental questions about the management structure of the Maine Turnpike Authority and its recent inability to turn over any operating surplus to the state to defray other transportation costs.

The MTA board’s scrambling is understandable and probably overdue. But it is not a substitute for a serious legislative inquiry.

 


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