Six Mainers have formally challenged Gov. Paul LePage’s controversial decision to remove a mural from the Maine Department of Labor headquarters in Augusta, according to a lawsuit that their lawyer says was filed electronically this evening to the U.S. District Court in Portland.
The complaint claims that the Republican governor, Maine State Museum Director Joseph Phillips and Acting Labor Commissioner Laura Boyette have violated the free-speech rights of all Mainers and failed in their fiduciary duties as government officials, said attorney Jeffrey Young of Topsham.
The complaint asks the court to compel LePage and the others to disclose the location of the mural that was secretly removed a week ago; to make sure the mural is adequately preserved and protected; and ultimately to restore the mural to its proper location in the lobby of the Department of Labor.
“The governor is trying to erase the working history of the people of Maine,” Young said. “We’re trying to preserve and protect the rights of the people of Maine. We don’t need the governor or the government telling us what we should or shouldn’t know about.”
A court official said the lawsuit wouldn’t be processed until Monday. Young provided an digital copy to the Portland Press Herald.
Installed in 2008, the 36-foot-long mural depicts moments in Maine labor history, such as the 1937 shoe factory strike in Lewiston-Auburn and Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works.
The mural was painted by Judy Taylor of Tremont and paid for with $60,000 in federal money earmarked for upgrades to the Department of Labor offices.
LePage has said that the 11-panel mural presents a one-sided view of labor history, and that he acted because some businesses had complained that the mural is hostile to employers.
Young disputes assertions that the mural is anti-business. He also questions LePage’s assumptions about the role of the Department of Labor.
“It’s a portrayal of what people do for work in the state of Maine,” Young said. “The role of the Department of Labor is to ensure that the working people of Maine are paid appropriately, that their safety and well being are protected in the workplace, and that they are provided benefits and assistance when they are out of work.”
Young said other departments are charged with promoting the interests of business.
LePage’s staff members declined to comment on the lawsuit because they had only seen a news release about it.
“The mural remains safe and secure, awaiting transfer to a suitable venue for public display,” Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said in a written response to a request for comment.
Bennett also noted that Young works for McTeague Higbee, a Topsham law firm that represents the AFL-CIO and employs Ben Grant, a lawyer who is chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
Young said he believes the mural is being stored in an electrical closet at the Department of Labor.
“That’s not an appropriate place to store artwork,” Young said.
The six plaintiffs are: Jonathan Beal of Portland, a labor lawyer; Don Berry of Sumner, president of the Maine AFL-CIO and head of the training committee of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 567; John Newton of Portland, an industrial hygienist with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor; and three Maine artists, Robert Shetterly of Brooksville, Natasha Mayers of Whitefield and Joan Braun of Weld, all of them current or past members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists.