Commissioner Speaks Out, Blasts Gov. LePage
It’s rare for a government official, especially a cabinet member, to resign with the kind of public display seen from Marine Resources Commissioner Norm Olsen.
As word first circulated yesterday that Olsen was leaving his post, only six months into his term, it wasn't clear why. The official statement from the LePage administration gave no reason for the departure, noting that LePage was “grateful to Commissioner Olsen for his work.”
Then, the floodgates opened. First in an interview with Maine Public Radio and then in a statement given to a number of media outlets, Olsen attacked his former boss for politically and professionally stabbing him in the back.
According to Olsen, when some of the administration’s policies, particularly on groundfishing, proved to be deeply unpopular with lobstermen, a powerful constituency with close ties to the governor and his office, Olsen was left twisting in the wind. He was apparently told he had to pursue the administration’s policies while at the same time somehow making friends with those most vehemently opposed to that work.
Olsen also alleges that the governor refused to meet with him, shot down every initiative he proposed to achieve his goals, and undermined him with both his staff and members of the industry it was his job to regulate.
“In addition, the Governor has adopted a policy of prohibiting me from attending meetings that he has with industry members, even those for whom I initiated the meeting request,” wrote Olsen. “I learn the outcomes of these meetings — and his positions on the topics that they raise — from a staff aide who reports to me whatever she feels like reporting.”
Olsen claims that this atmosphere allowed other staff within the department, who he says were not doing their jobs and were scared of a program audit he was conducting, to further undercut his work, refusing to share information or follow the directions of their boss.
Olsen says he finally made the decision to leave after the governor threatened to fire him if the results of an informal poll of industry insiders found they didn’t like the commissioner. Olsen says he wasn’t given information on who these people were or the specifics of their complaints.
Governor LePage’s spokesman disputes this, saying such an ultimatum was never delivered.
Olsen seems to realize how unusual it is for a resigning government official, no matter what the reason for their resignation, to make this kind of public statement upon their departure, stating that “I am leaving, not for health reasons, and not to spend more time with my family, and not to pursue other interests, which are all the commonly used themes for such resignations, but because this administration is more interested in pacifying special interest groups than in responsibly managing Maine’s marine resources for the benefit of the entire state.”
This strong rebuke from a cabinet member echoes other complaints about the management style of Governor LePage, including from members of the Legislature who have expressed frustration with LePage’s lack of interest in compromise and single-minded insistence on getting his own way.
The entire resignation statement is a must-read, not just because of the way in which it lays out Olsen’s view of his former department, but also for the window it provides into the thinking of the governor and his staff when it comes to politics and policy more broadly.
For instance, Olsen claims that LePage opposed collaboration with the City of Portland on returning groundfish boats to Maine simply because “Portland was against him.” Olsen’s letter implies that the governor proposed abandoning work that had already been done in the city and building a new port somewhere else, purely out of spite.
Olsen is the third LePage cabinet member to resign so far in the short life of the administration.