Flaws Emerging in Land Use Planning Commissioner Appointment Process
Testimony by Cathy Johnson, NRCM North Woods Project Director
My name is Cathy Johnson, I am a resident of Alna. I am the North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. I am here on behalf of NRCM’s 12,000 members and supporters to speak in opposition to the nomination of Paul Underwood.
I believe that this is only the second time in my 23 years at NRCM that I have testified against a nominee. I am doing it today because I believe the credibility and integrity of the agency, the Land Use Planning Commission, is at risk.
NRCM is very concerned about both nominees put forward for the LUPC today. We believe that the current process of nominating candidates for the LUPC is seriously flawed and will result in a Commission that is comprised of many members who do not support the very laws they would be charged to implement, and a Commission which does not represent the diversity and broad interests of Maine people.
Paul Underwood’s nomination illustrates multiple problems with this new system:
1) Despite legislative efforts to ensure an open and fair process for identifying qualified candidates, County Commissioners can now appoint their friends and colleagues;
2) Individuals can be appointed and forwarded for nomination who are openly hostile to the state laws they might administer.
The process to appoint new Commissioners to the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) was established as a result of multiple legislative compromises in 2012âand the result is unlike any other state board or commission. Accompanying my testimony is a list of all the Boards and Commissions that require Senate confirmation.
To my knowledge, in every other case, there is appointment by the Governor, after a lengthy vetting process, followed by a nomination hearing before the relevant legislative committee and confirmation (or not) by the Senate. As the LURC reform legislation was debated in 2012, multiple amendments were considered as legislators struggled to ensure a fair and transparent process for appointing qualified Commissioners who are responsible for implementing state laws, while also providing more opportunities for local input. The final result was that 8 of the 9 Commissioners would be nominated by County Commissioners.
Turning over the ability to nominate members to a state wide board responsible for implementing state law to a locally elected group of officials had never been done before, to our knowledge. Furthermore, the process established that all nominees would be sent directly to the legislative committee for review without any vetting process. Only one of the slots would go through the normal Executive Branch vetting and appointment process involving the Governor.
Many lawmakers were uneasy that this approach might not have the procedural rigor that goes into gubernatorial nominations. They also were concerned that this process could enable County Commissioners to appoint themselves and, over time, populate the LUPC with County Commissioners, raising potential conflicts of interest and other policy issues. Some lawmakers attempted to amend the LUPC bill to prevent a County Commissioner from simultaneously serving on LUPC and as a County Commissioner, but those efforts did not prevail. A late amendment to the legislation does prevent a County Commissioner from voting for himself or herself, yet allows a County Commissioner to be nominated by the votes of the other Commissioners. And that is what appears to have happened with Paul Underwood, currently an Aroostook County Commissioner.
Undercutting the Legislature’s intent, the Aroostook County Commissioners nominated their fellow Commissioner to the LUPC.
The legislature worked hard to try to make sure that the LUPC did not get filled with County Commissioners appointing themselves to the Commission. However, the very thing the legislature was trying to avoid has effectively happened. Aroostook County Commissioner Paul Underwood was appointed to LUPC by his two fellow County Commissioners â these three Commissioners have been serving together as county commissioners since Jan. 2001.
Appointing one’s friends and colleagues may be technically legal but it undercuts the legislative intent. Through multiple versions of last year’s reform bill the words shall “elect one among them” was removed from the bill. This was an effort to avoid county commissioners voting for themselves. However, by later adding language to the bill which forbids a county commissioner from voting for him or herself, the loophole was opened that a county commissioner could get his two colleagues to vote for him and still comply with the strict word of the law.
We understand that the same process has now occurred in Somerset County leading to the nomination of another county commissioner. That nomination will be before you in a couple of weeks.
Our second concern with Mr. Underwood’s nomination is that he has openly advocated abolishing LURC.
As above, commissions responsible for implementing state laws cannot be effective if they are made up of people who want to abolish the Commission.
Paul Underwood was one of the two most vocal proponents for abolishing LURC. He convened strategy meetings, testified publicly, and gave multiple public presentations on why LURC should be abolished. His appointment to the LUPC is also a blatant example of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
Therefore, it is crucial that this Committee approach this LUPC nomination review process much more rigorously than previous nominations made and vetted by the Governor. And we urge you to vote against the nomination.
Thank you for your attention.