As staffers quietly depart, LePage not going gentle into that good night

Governor Paul LePage pulled the plug on 18 nominees to state boards and commissions last week. His spokesman, Michael Beardsley, said it was in response to “petty partisan politics” in Augusta, an apparent reference to the failure of two other gubernatorial nominees to be approved by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee the previous day.

Beardsley made the right call, but perhaps on the wrong player. What is not petty about the Governor dumping an entire slate of nominees because two were not successful? That’s the process, right? He nominates, the committees deliberate and the Senate gives the final approval.

Furthermore, it is not the Legislature that feels the pain of the pulled nominations. How about the family and friends of the nominees who traveled to Augusta on Thursday to witness the proceedings and congratulate the successful? And how about the nominees themselves, already part way through a careful vetting, only to see their names flushed away as the sun rose on their day in the spotlight? Petty indeed.

In the waning days of his administration, members of LePage’s administrative staff are beginning to tiptoe away to greener pastures. Ricker Hamilton, a longstanding administrator in the Department of Health and Human Services who ended his career as commissioner of the DHHS, retired at the end of August just shy of a year in the position.

Hamilton was picked as interim head of the department when then-Commissioner Mary Mayhew departed on an ill-fated quest to succeed Governor LePage in the Blaine House. There was fleeting hope that Hamilton, praised for his work with developing elder care facilities on Maine’s off-shore islands and for his work on behalf of a Hancock County housing project for young adults with special needs, would bring a kinder, gentler hand to the DHHS reins.

And so he did, or so it seemed, when he acknowledged shortcomings within the department. Then he was a no-show at the Government Oversight Committee at which the death of two children whose care was within DHHS jurisdiction was to be discussed. The committee promptly subpoenaed him.

Hamilton’s absence at the meeting was at the direction of the Governor, who said that “placing the commissioner in a situation where legislators could ask any question would jeopardize the deliberate care taken to date by my office…” Oh yeah. Questions? Not good. The degree to which this put a damper on Hamilton’s plans for the department and influenced the length of his tenure is a matter of speculation.

Cabinet member Joseph LaBonte, director of the Office of Policy and Management, departed quietly in April and the office largely disappeared with him. OPM was created in 2012, and its first director was Richard Rosen of Bucksport, who served in both the House and Senate. Rosen was an honest broker who worked well across party lines. He left OPM to head the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. His abrupt resignation from DAFS in June 2017 was mourned by members of both parties, who described Rosen as a “really valuable guy” with a “calm, reasonable approach to financial matters” who could “bring some sense to the process.”

Kathleen Newman, the Governor’s deputy Chief of Staff, left last fall. His chief of staff, John McGough, left in January. More recently, Adria Horn, director of the Bureau of Veterans Services, announced her departure. Commissioner George Gervais left his post at the Department of Economic and Community Development in June.

While Governor LePage was showing no signs of going quietly into the closing months of his final term, his health loomed large as a worrisome factor. On a visit to Canada he experienced “discomfort” and was handed home from hospital in St. John, New Brunswick, to Presque Isle to Bangor.

Discharged and making little of the experience, we then learned that on the advice of his doctors the Governor canceled his plans to participate in a trade mission to Ireland and the United Kingdom. While we all have a right to privacy regarding our health, it is a bit different for a governor.

In Maine, the Senate President is next in line should the governor be incapacitated. Despite a previous surgical procedure in 2016 and an event in 2017 when the Governor was struck on his bicycle by a motor vehicle and, by his own description, sent flying 40 feet, the recent episode of “discomfort” was the first time Senate President Mike Thibodeau was officially notified of a gubernatorial illness. Now Governor LePage has had to cancel a scheduled trip overseas to represent Maine. What’s up?

The disappearance of cabinet members is not at all unusual when an executive nears the end of his term. Unfortunately, there has not been a parallel winding down of the Governor’s erratic behavior. Prediction: This Governor will exercise both his administrative authority and his temper until the January inauguration of his successor.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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