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