AUGUSTA — Recently I read with great dismay a series of articles published in this newspaper, better described as personal attacks, regarding Patricia Aho, Maine’s commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (“The lobbyist in the henhouse: Whose interest is Maine’s DEP commissioner serving?” by Colin Woodard, June 16-18).
Setting aside the fact that I consider the commissioner a personal friend, I forced myself to read the series from an unbiased perspective and try to understand the concerns held by others.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a lobbyist for many years representing various interests in the Maine economy. I have great friends on both sides of the political aisle. I have worked with Commissioner Aho on numerous occasions, both in her role as a commissioner and in her previous role as a lobbyist.
I have always viewed her as a person of integrity who commands knowledge of the issues she deals with and respects those people working with her – regardless of their position.
To be sure, I have never felt that because I represent the interests of businesses that she has given me a favorable advantage on any piece of legislation or policy. In fact, on several occasions, she and I have differed significantly on our approach and desired outcomes.
I can attest that the commissioner is an independent thinker, doing what she thinks is best for all of the people of Maine. And that is why the series of articles that appeared in this past week astounded me so.
For years, Maine’s business community had felt isolated from the Department of Environmental Protection. Under Commissioner Aho, a line of communication has been finally opened and economic consequences of environmental policy are being taken more seriously.
The business community is now working proactively to address true environmental concerns, and in return the department is recognizing that a healthy environment and a strong economy are not mutually exclusive ideals, but rather complement one another.
As evidence of this, the commissioner has overseen the reinvigoration of the Governor’s Awards for Environmental Excellence, and businesses are being recognized for their strong commitments to environmental protection. It is amazing what can happen when Maine policy makers use a carrot instead of a stick.
The series of articles also seemed to insinuate that because Aho is a former lobbyist that her integrity is somehow compromised. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth.
Instead, Aho’s years of experience on environmental policy have benefited the people of Maine. She understands well that a commissioner must work effectively with both political parties, environmental organizations, business groups, and the public in general in order to develop sound, effective policy.
Even more concerning about this series of articles was the fact that a large number of legislators were fully aware of Aho’s professional experience when they voted to confirm her. Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, many of whom had known Aho for years in her role as a lobbyist, were able to question her in a comprehensive manner during the confirmation hearing process. All of this was public information.
This is the same process that has been used for confirming commissioners in the past, including the previous commissioners of the Department of Environmental Protection who have also been lobbyists during their careers.
Businesses, environmentalists and the public should be applauding the work of Commissioner Aho and her team at the Department of Environmental Protection. They are reducing red tape and listening more to the public, while at the same time focusing on protecting Maine’s most precious asset — our natural resources.
Exploring true conflicts of interest is a worthy task of any reporter. It’s just unfortunate the author of this series chose to single out a great person, a true professional and an effective commissioner as part of this process.
James Cote (email: [email protected]) owns a consulting firm in Augusta and lives in Farmington.