AUGUSTA – Norman Olsen resigned Wednesday as commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources, saying that after six months of pursuing Gov. Paul LePage’s policy goals, he felt he did not have the governor’s full support.
Olsen, 60, of Cherryfield, was selected by the LePage administration and confirmed unanimously by the state Senate in late January. After a 45-minute meeting Wednesday morning, the governor accepted his letter of resignation, containing a single, handwritten sentence. It was effective immediately.
Although Olsen generated controversy in the marine resources industry by discussing the possibility of changing long-established policies, he and a spokesman for LePage said they agreed on policy.
“I was addressing all the issues that came to me,” Olsen said in a phone interview. “That generated a lot of flak,” as objections were raised to any discussion of fishing boats keeping lobster bycatch or the transferability of licenses.
Olsen also was reviewing his department from top to bottom, which he said stirred resentment among staffers.
Independent auditors “have been uncovering what I would call numerous deficiencies in the way we operate, including programs that basically have no benefit for the state and one program that essentially doesn’t even exist,” Olsen said. “That started generating a lot of flak in-house.”
Eventually, Olsen said, he was informed that members of the industry and staffers in his department were emerging from meetings with LePage saying publicly that the commissioner was going to be fired.
“They are walking around saying that I am a short-timer and that I’m going to be fired soon so that nobody has to deal with me,” he said. “I could tolerate that as long as I thought the governor had my back.”
Olsen said he realized that he might be on his own after two LePage staffers issued a warning to him in a recent meeting. They said complaints had reached LePage’s office that he was not responsive enough to the industry.
“I was put on warning that I had until the end of the summer to turn the situation around,” he said.
After running into more difficulty in his departmental audit and feeling more and more left out of the industry’s communications with the administration, Olsen decided he had to see the governor.
Olsen said he told LePage on Wednesday morning about the difficulties he was having with staffers, and the governor told him to sort out the situation and fire people if necessary. Olsen told the governor he was wary of doing that because he had been told by the governor’s staff that he needed to boost his popularity.
Olsen said he was told that a LePage staffer would poll industry people around Labor Day to find out whether Olsen was being more responsive. If they said he was, he could keep his job. If they said he wasn’t, his position would be re-evaluated.
The governor was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but Adam Fisher, a spokesman for the governor who was not at the meeting, said that ultimatum was never given.
After walking about three-quarters of the way out of LePage’s office, Olsen said, he turned around and delivered his resignation letter.
“I had hoped we could fix a lot of things and generate jobs for those people who have been cut out by the limited entry systems at our fisheries,” Olsen said. “There had been … ways to generate revenues and jobs for coastal communities, and it’s not going to happen if we’re going to listen to anonymous detractors.”
Olsen also issued a written statement in which he addressed policy goals.
He wrote, “I planned, and the governor concurred, that we would take advantage of the vastly increasing offshore groundfish stocks and return to Maine the fleet of boats that has, for economic and regulatory reasons, migrated to Massachusetts …
“We would also seek to adapt the laws and regulations by which interest groups exclude from their fisheries all competition and new entrants,” he wrote, “enacting instead transparent means for new entrants to join each fishery.”
Olsen wrote, “We would manage our resources based on science — both biology and economics — not based on how many lobstermen can fill a legislative hearing at the Augusta Civic Center.
“The governor was clear that those were his aims, as well as mine, and he pledged his resolve to pursue that course,” Olsen wrote. “While I have maintained my commitments, the Governor’s Office has not maintained its resolve.”
Members of the marine resources industry were reluctant to weigh in on the situation Wednesday, and many were surprised to hear of Olsen’s departure.
James Markos, president of the Maine Seafood Alliance, said Olsen had “been very responsive to any questions that I’ve had.”
“With any newcomer, you really want to wait and see … how things settle in, and for me that period of time had not yet been achieved,” Markos said. “I was really surprised to hear” that Olsen resigned.
Glen Libby of Cundys Harbor, who fishes for shrimp and groundfish, is a member of the Department of Marine Resources’ Advisory Council and the New England Fishery Management Council. He said the commissioner’s job is a tough one for anybody.
“(Olsen) had his own unique style. I thought he was straightforward, he didn’t beat around the bush and he seemed real honest,” Libby said. “In any type of fishing, people want to be left alone. So it’s a tough job.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association issued a statement saying it had no comment.
Patrick Keliher, who was acting deputy commissioner of the department, has been sworn in as Olsen’s replacement, according to a release from the Governor’s Office.
Two other members of LePage’s Cabinet have resigned in the first year of the administration: Philip Congdon, from the Department of Economic and Community Development, and Darryl Brown, who left the Department of Environmental Protection and became head of the State Planning Office.
In April, Dan Demeritt resigned as the governor’s communications director.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: