A real-world Turnpike Authority

Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette’s resignation is a good start. But it is just that, a start.

His resignation should be the first of many coming down the pike.

If members of the authority’s board have any hope of restoring credibility, management — and that means directors and managers — at the MTA must be held accountable, or be replaced.

Violette and his peers at the MTA have come under fire, deservedly so, for excessive expenditures in administration of the state’s single turnpike. Among other things, the MTA — and Violette specifically — cannot account for $157,493 worth of gift certificates for pricey restaurants and luxury hotels distributed between 2005 and 2007. “Cannot account for” means that under legislative scrutiny, Violette can’t say what the gift certificates were for or who received them.

That’s a fairy tale.

Violette could have turned to any of the dozens of MTA employees who may have a better memory than him — or, better yet, actual records of that spending — to get an answer. That he can’t, didn’t or wouldn’t is wrong, and that current members of the MTA board aren’t scrambling to resolve this question is worse.

Are Mainers who pay dearly at the tolls and who approve highway bond packages at the polls expected to believe MTA Director of Finance Douglas Davidson can’t track down five-year-old expenditures to the dollar? Isn’t he the guy counting the authority’s beans?

What about COO Peter Merfeld, or the authority’s CFO Neil Libby? Isn’t there a bookkeeper or auditor who may have made some notation on $157,493 in spending?

It isn’t just the gift certificates in question. It’s questionable spending in general and a lack of returning a single penny of surplus to the Maine Department of Transportation since 1997, despite a law requiring such return.

MTA had enough money to supply a half-million-dollars worth of gifts, donations and sponsorships between 2005 and 2007, but didn’t have any surplus to return to Maine taxpayers, as required?

Part of the reason the MTA did not have surplus to return may very well be the 2006 construction of its $11.9 million executive palace off Exit 46 in Portland. Or the princely trip by five MTA board members and employees to Vienna, Austria, in 2007.

See the fairy tale theme here?

In his letter of resignation, Violette appears to have fallen on his sword, saying he believed his continued leadership had become a distraction that shifted focus from professionalism of MTA staff. He noted how proud of he was of his 24-year career and of the work done over the years to boost MTA’s bond rating.

There is much the MTA can be proud of, including its safety record, but its failure to track spending of its $100-million-plus annual budget and its propensity toward executive glitz is nothing to be proud of.

What we, as taxpayers, can do about demanding financial accountability is pretty slim.

The MTA is not a state agency, and whether or not it should be is a topic that demands immediate discussion. But, for now, we are dealing with an independent quasi-governmental agency funded through tolls and revenue bonds that is answerable to taxpayers in a general sense, but is not accountable to them.

It is, quite literally, its own kingdom.

The 109-mile road under MTA’s management and control is essential to this state and is impressively maintained and patrolled. It is also heavily used, routing some 61 million vehicles a year.

We cannot do without this roadway, but we can certainly do without its current administration, which disburses gift cards in anonymity and incurs excessive travel and dining expenses for its employees and directors, all while incrementally raising tolls to pay for its high-priced operations.

Violette is gone.

Whoever is named as his replacement, temporarily and then permanently, must be prepared to manage the MTA in the real world. Not someone content to continue the authority’s fairyland existence.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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Comments

Jerome Young's picture

That...was a well written

That...was a well written article. Thank You. I would like the state to dig a little deeper. Who was doing the oversight? If MTA is a yet another "Quasi-Govt" organization. And yet another with the ability to borrow using the bond credibility of Maine. Who did the audits? Where ARE they? Who picked the auditors and why? Was it low bid or no bid deal? Once this is fixed will the tolls go back down? As was said, there seems to be ALOT left out, I hope we get to the crux of this. And, how many MORE quasi-gov't orgs are out there?

Jack Tetreault's picture

Change to DOT

If you think the tolls are high now wait till the DOT takes over, if they do. I prefer Govt oversight , as in how utilities are managed, to outright Govt control. If DOT gets involved than politics will dictate which means that tolls will be raised with impunity and will become a "non-tax" tax which the govt can use as a slush fund for projects other than highway maintenance. Me thinks there is more to this story than is being published.

AL PELLETIER's picture

interesting

Yes, it sure will be interesting to find out who else was behind this hanky-panky paid for by us folks who are tolled to death and are told it's for highway maintenance. As Gregg wrote, it's time for DOT to take over.

Greg Rose's picture

Dissolve the Maine Turnpike Authority

Sounds like a good idea to me. Why can't this road, like other state roads in Maine be managed by DOT? It's a road - just like any other road in Maine - granted it is a vital part of our infrastructure but it's just a road. It is time to dissolve this little kingdom and put the Turnpike under the DOT - without a semi quasi pseudo governement agency in place to supervise it, build palatial headquarters buildings and hand out gift cards like those annoying folks in orange t-shirts on every street corner in Las Vegas who hand out other types of cards. I am sure that DOT can manage an additional 109 miles of highway. If such a change requires action by the legislature, which I am pretty sure it does, that bill should be presented ASAP.

Bob Stone's picture

Bravo

Well written and spot on. Thank you, Judy Meyer.

Fred Stone's picture

Compensation Package

It would be interesting to know what kind of a compensation package Paul will receive for all his misdeeds.

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