AUGUSTA – The recent Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald series on the leadership of Environmental Protection Commissioner Pattie Aho left me disappointed in the tone and the resulting insinuations.
Commissioner Aho was a well-respected advocate heralded by both sides of the aisle for a thoughtful and detailed approach to her job when she was vetted by the Maine State Senate. She was unanimously confirmed by both sides of the aisle.
We live in a state admired and envied for its pristine environment, and I commend Aho for striking the delicate balance between protecting our resources and creating a better business environment as DEP commissioner.
Aho is not the first commissioner to come as an advocate into state government, yet she is the first to be attacked in such a manner. I fear this series may well have a chilling effect on those willing to serve in these roles in the future.
In 2010, Maine voters elected a new governor who ran, in part, on an agenda to create a more business-friendly administration and to create greater balance between environmental protection and economic development. Prior to that, Maine businesses complained about a lack of receptivity and unreasonably strict interpretations of Maine’s environmental laws and regulations.
Industries also complained that Maine had become an outlier in environmental policy, creating a negative perception of Maine as a place to conduct business.
In the bipartisan report issued on L.D. 1, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed we needed balanced environmental protections.
We are now seeing the impact under LePage and Aho of a shift in philosophy, a shift in management style and a shift in policy agendas consistent with the LePage platform and supported by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Understandably, many DEP employees and environmental advocates are also experiencing these impacts. We are not, however, experiencing a decline in environmental protections — but that doesn’t mean some folks don’t want Maine people to think otherwise.
A commissioner has a certain level of discretionary authority to make decisions, including personnel and process decisions, and in prioritizing the work of a department.
Nowhere do the articles cite Aho as violating state law or allowing violations of environmental standards. Rather, they are critical of her decision-making process and her decisions related to the department priorities and management practices.
But the series goes further, implying these decisions are somehow driven by unethical or unsavory motivations. While some environmental types are not pleased at their efforts being stymied, this “off the record” comment approach is nothing more than a chance to intimidate and harass the commissioner, and it is viewed as every bit unsavory and unfair by many.
And the sources for these articles? Past and current employees who are not happy with the current management style or priorities, and Maine’s leading environmental advocates. As the leader of Maine’s largest business associations, not once was I or a member of my staff asked to comment. Fact checking with the sources appears to have been one-sided.
To help prove my point, here are a couple of facts that didn’t make the story.
In 2008, Maine enacted the Kid-Safe Products Act. Reporter Colin Woodard writes about the list of 49 chemicals created under the law, but the list of 49 was not part of the 2008 law.
The list was created under the LePage administration and based on legislation passed unanimously by the Legislature and signed by LePage in 2011. If it were not for the work of the DEP, led by Aho, there would not be a list of 49 chemicals that could be regulated.
Those who worked on the original act knew further effort was required to make it workable, and they set out to finish that in 2011. The end result was passage of L.D. 1129, a bill worked on and agreed to by both business and environmental groups, and heralded by both as a victory.
In the end, it is important that in our system of government, people feel they can serve the state of Maine in public servant roles, within the constraints of the laws, but free from intimidation. The articles seem to want to lead people to conclude that Aho is acting unethically, when in fact, no violation was cited.
Aho is executing a philosophy and agenda consistent with the current administration, which is its prerogative. In doing so, she is returning balance to our environmental policies.
In closing, I do not condone the level of negative discourse and innuendo in these articles. Maine does its best work when all parties work together, and when we cannot agree, we treat each other with respect.
Dana Connors is president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.