Board members express their frustration with the governor’s intervention as he tries to assert control over the state’s largest land conservation program.
By Steve Mistler, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA –– Three of Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet members did not attend a board meeting for the Land for Maine’s Future program on Tuesday.
It is the second straight LMF meeting that the governor’s commissioners have not shown up.
Patrick Keliher, chief of the Department of Marine Resources, Walter E. Whitcomb, head of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, and Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Department Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, are all appointed to the board but were not present.
The commissioners’ absence, which prevented the panel from having a quorum, comes at crucial time for the state’s largest land conservation program, which has protected 570,000 acres since 1987. Advocates worry that the program is in jeopardy because LePage has withheld voter-approved funding for over 30 approved projects.
The meeting also follows a Press Herald report showing that the governor has frozen $2 million in bond money already in the control of LMF.
The governor’s move is the latest effort by his administration to assert control over the program that distributes voter-approved bond funds to conservation projects.
Board members expressed frustration over the governor’s actions, his commissioners’ absences and an ongoing review by LePage’s Office of Policy Management. Several board members questioned whether they should continue to meet because they did not have a quorum to conduct business and LePage had frozen the program’s funding.
Neil Piper, a public board member, said that the governor had paralyzed the board.
“I did not realize that I joined this board … that it would be subject to political leverage and even outright disdain by the governor and his staff,” Piper said.
Board member James Gorman Jr. was more explicit. At one point he told Jonathan Labonte, the director of OPM, that his agency and the LePage administration were preventing the board from functioning or implementing changes to improve the program. Gorman said a review of LMF is important, but the board could not do its work.
“I don’t think keeping us halfway in the dark is going to help maintain the excellence of (LMF),” Gorman told Labonte.
He added, “You’re doing due diligence, but at some point I hope you begin speaking to us. It’s a two-way street. You gotta do your’s, too. Let’s live up to the commitment that the state wants. It’s the voters that have approved these bonds. I love working on this board … but, Jesus, I’m pissed off.”
David Trahan, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he emphathized with the board but urged members to keep meeting. Trahan described Labonte’s pending review as a sham process designed to cripple the board. Trahan, a former legislator who helped develop regulations to review government programs, said he’d never seen an administration use a program review “as a battering ram to impose their political will on a program that they run. That’s what’s going on here today.”
Members of the LMF board are appointed by the governor and it is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
LMF director Sarah Demers told the board that LePage is also blocking its use of private donations. Demers’ comment came as the board discussed whether it could continue to operate.
The majority of LMF projects have been working forests, farmlands and commercial waterfront property. Money for the projects comes from bonds that must be approved by voters and then released by the governor. The bond money is the state’s primary funding stream for land conservation, and is nearly always supplemented by funds from other sources, including the federal government, municipalities, private corporations, land trusts and individual donors.
LePage already has withheld $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and another $5 million approved in 2012. The 2010 bonds have effectively expired and must be reauthorized by the Legislature if they are to be used.