by George Smith
Bangor Daily News column
I wrote this column yesterday, before Governor LePage announced he would allow $5 million of Land for Maine’s Future bonds to be sold. He also said he would allow the sale of $6 million of LMF bonds that have expired, if the legislature revives them. However, the Governor trashed the LMF program in his press release, so we don’t know if the Governor will actually allow the bond money to be used to fund approved LMF projects, particularly given that he has severely criticized some pending projects. Time will tell, I guess. Perhaps this statement from LMF Commissioners had something to do with the Governor’s decision.
Commissioners Issue Statement
The public members of the Land for Maine’s Future Board have issued a statement challenging the Governor’s “political obstruction of the LMF process and withholding of citizen approved bonds.” In an unprecedented move, all five Commissioners approved the supplemental statement, which they asked be included in a report that the Governor ordered up on the LMF process and program.
That report, prepared at the Governor’s request by Jonathon LaBonte, the Governor’s Director of the Office of Policy and Administration, has been completed for some time now, but the LePage Administration is sitting on it. Come on Governor! You asked for the report and now it’s time for you to share it with us.
In their statement, the Commissioners noted that, “The public members of the LMF board feel Maine faces the most pressing emerging issues to ever affect the Land for Maine’s Future program and all conservation efforts in Maine.” And they clearly outlined those issues in their statement.
Governor LePage is also refusing to reappoint LMF Commissioners, or even appoint new LMF Commissioners to replace those who are now serving. The terms of four of the five current LMF Commissioners will be expired as of January 1. LMF Commissioners continue to serve until they are reappointed or someone else is appointed to fill their position.
To explain their supplemental statement, Commissioners Bill Vail, Jim Norris, Jim Gorman, Ben Emery, and Neil Piper that, “The LMF Board received numerous public comments about the political obstruction of the LMF process and withholding of citizen approved bonds. The public members of the board felt it important that this issue be included in the GEA oversight report as an important emerging issue that affects the operation and existence of this program. Current drafts of this report do not include any reference to this issue.”
The Commissioners also noted that, “While the report has not been released (it was due on November 1) the public members of the board do not believe the emerging issue of political interference in LMF activities will be included in this report. This supplemental statement is the public board members position that should be part of this report,” they wrote.
The Commissioners included a list of recommendations in their statement, including this one: “The legislature should consider legislation to increase public participation and limit political influence in LMF processes.” An important recommendation, for sure.
The Commissioner’s statement is a bit long, but I’m going to include all of it here, because you should read it all, and I doubt it will ever be included in LaBonte’s report as the Commissioner’s requested. Here is their statement, in its entirety. Please be sure to read the Commissioners’ recommendations at the end of the statement.
Supplemental Statement by Public members of Land for Maine’s Future Board to the Governmental Evaluation Act Report to the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Introduction: This supplemental report is made by the public members of the Land for Maine’s Future Board, who feel that the current review and examination of the LMF activities by the Office of Policy and Management may not address the current impasse and impediments to operations of the Land for Maine’s Future Board. The purpose of this statement is not to take any political stand on non-LMF issues but to express concern over long term effects on conservation efforts in the State of Maine. Conservation and public policy efforts of LMF programs are in jeopardy, and by extension, local efforts are negatively impacted.
Summary of facts: The main report being released clearly outlines the many accomplishments of LMF over the years: the conservation of key natural resources all across Maine that provides public access, outdoor recreation, and preservation from development of many scenic and important natural resources; the preservation of working farms to enable local Maine families to continue long standing farm and lifestyle operations; the protection of working waterfront facilities that provides jobs and continuation of a vital fisheries industry in the State of Maine. These efforts have been well documented. They and future efforts are now in jeopardy.
In 2009 $6 million in bonds were approved by the public and in 2011 $5million in bonds were approved by voters. After developing extensive criteria and having workshops with the public 32 proposals were submitted by March 2014. These requests were accompanied by extensive proposal meeting guidelines that met criteria that conservation groups worked very hard to incorporate into their proposals furthering the wishes of the public and legislative interests. The board then spent hundreds of hours reviewing the proposals, asking for additional information and scoring and evaluating the projects. The review ultimately resulted in July 2014 in the allocation of $10.4million dollars of grants to 30 projects that provided about 30% of the total funds needed for various conservation, farmland, water access and working waterfront projects.
Since that time up until today these applicants have continued with the due diligence to close on the conservation projects according to the specifications in the grants and LMF. Many projects are ready to close and some have closed with borrowed funds due to contractual obligations incurring additional costs to the applicants and public. The inability to release approved voter bond funds to previously approved projects is a great concern to the LMF board.
Current situation: The public members of the LMF board feel Maine faces the most pressing emerging issues to ever affect the Land for Maine’s Future program and all conservation efforts in Maine.
1. The success of LMF has always been the result of the bipartisan support of the program by the legislature and the overwhelming support by the public. Adding partisan political agendas to the functioning of this program will always jeopardize the very fundamentals of the program and its ability to objectively carry out the public mandate.
2. Freezing and eventual expiration of publicly approved bond funds create an uncertainty over availability of public funds and trust in the word of government to back public policy initiatives.
3. There are now legal questions as to the future availability of funding and disbursement of funds to previously approved projects — putting at risk commitments by the LMF board made under its statutory authority on behalf of the State of Maine that were made in good faith and also risking many already committed matching funds from other sources.
4. The inability of LMF to operate normally has put land trusts and state agency applicants in limbo and created many issues for people trying to close on conservation projects that have taken years to put together and incurred large project costs.
Impact and Recommendations: The following actions need to be taken to restore this program.
1. Legislature should take action to reinstate the expired bond as soon as possible
2. The legislature should consider legislation to increase public participation and limit political influence in LMF processes.
3. The operations of the LMF board should be reviewed to ensure that political use of public bond funds approved by the voters is eliminated.
4. Efforts should be made to immediately fill vacancies on the LMF board, with due regard to the need for diversity of experience, geography, age, and gender, to gain reaffirmation by the legislature and executive branch of support for LMF’s mission.
Until such time as the LMF board can function again and continue to proceed with closing previously approved projects, other efforts that have been identified or are being identified in the GEA report are irrelevant. The accomplishments of LMF and the impact on the State of Maine that provide access to all citizens and contribute to Maine’s quality of life are in jeopardy.
Reviewed and approved by Public members of The Land for Maine’s Future Board: William Vail, James Norris, James Gorman, Ben Emery, Neil Piper.