In the face of a financial crisis, the University of Maine System has waived its usual hiring rules to hire a former spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage who resigned that job after revelations that five properties he owned were in foreclosure.
Dan Demeritt will be paid $125,000 a year as the system’s executive director of public affairs, said Ryan Low, executive director of governmental and external affairs. Demeritt will report directly to Chancellor James Page in the new position.
“Dan is a respected communications professional and we look forward to the energy and ideas he will bring to our team,” Page said in announcing the hire this week.
Demeritt said he will shape the system’s message.
“I think the system has a lot of challenges and it’s important that those things get framed in a way that people can understand,” he said Friday. “There’s an awful lot of energy and support for the university system. I’ll use my experience as a public relations professional and strategic tactician to harness that energy and make the system stronger.”
Low said the position was created in the last month and the usual hiring process was waived because of the urgent need to respond to the system’s fiscal crisis, the pending departures of the presidents at the flagship campus in Orono and the University of Southern Maine, and the release of the Board of Trustees’ five-year strategic plan.
“We recognize that there are a lot of things coming up,” Low said. “We would agree with some of the criticism that we could do a better job of communicating that change message, and we think Dan has the ability to do that.”
Susan Feiner, an economics professor at USM who is a vocal critic of the university’s spending priorities, blasted the hire.
“This is just emblematic of the chancellor’s office and the Board of Trustees putting the growth of the administration ahead of the health of the academic mission,” Feiner said. “I think the reason they need (this position) is because their behavior needs a lot of spin, because their behavior is destructive of the mission of the University of Maine System.”
Demeritt was press secretary for LePage from the fall of 2010 to early 2011. He has run a political consulting company, Winning Initiatives, since then.
In the late 1990s, he was a legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in Washington. He was political director of her election campaign in 1996. He was communications director of the Maine House Republican Office in 2002-03.
After resigning from LePage’s administration in 2011, Demeritt filed for bankruptcy. He said the unpaid taxes, bills and mortgages on the properties, all purchased within a short time in 2003, were results of business difficulties that began during the nation’s economic collapse, when he leveraged the value of his properties to buy other properties.
Low said those personal issues were not a concern in Demeritt’s hiring.
“It’s hard for me to understand how someone going through a personal issue like Dan did, something that thousands of Mainers went through during the recession, would affect his ability to deliver the message of the trustees, chancellor, and presidents to our audiences – both internal and external,” Low said. “I don’t know why it would be in any way relevant.”
Demeritt said the issue is “three years behind me.”
NAME CAME UP REPEATEDLY
Low said Demeritt will take on all of the duties of current Public Relations Manager Peggy Leonard and some of the external-affairs work that Low is now handling. He said the position was created because of Leonard’s decision to move to a job as a statewide internal communications manager with the system’s human resource department.
“The structure we have in place now doesn’t lend itself to be as responsive and proactive as we’d like to be,” Low said.
Page, senior officials in the system, trustees and others collaborated to create the new job description, Low said, and “Dan’s name came up” repeatedly as the person to hire, “so we acted quickly.”
Hiring for a university job is typically handled by the human resources department and involves paperwork, job postings on internal and external websites and various reviews, according to the human resource department’s handbook.
A search can be waived for several reasons, including the need to hire someone quickly or hire someone who can make a unique contribution. There also is a blanket waiver allowing the chancellor to hire one senior adviser without a search, or for “compelling reasons . . . determined to be in the best interest of the university.”
Low said he did not know how often the system waives the job search procedure.
“Waiving the normal job search process is not the norm but does happen on occasion in the System Office and on campuses when we have a documented immediate need to fill a position without a search,” he wrote in an email response.
HIRED AMID TIME OF CHANGE
Last month, the trustees approved a $529 million budget for the UMaine System in 2014-15 that includes $11.4 million from emergency reserves and the elimination of about 157 positions. The deep cuts and reserve funds closed a $36 million deficit that officials said was caused by flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.
Days later, the trustees released a draft strategic plan that would cut about $60 million through workforce reductions over the next five years, as part of an effort to close a projected $69 million budget deficit by 2019.
The same week, the system announced that it would open a search for a permanent president at USM to replace Theodora Kalikow, who came out of retirement to serve as president temporarily.
In Orono, UMaine President Paul Ferguson announced last month that he will leave to become president at Ball State University in Indiana as of Aug. 1.
Critics have questioned the number of high-paid executives in the UMaine System office during the financial crisis, including the recent $40,000-a-year raise for Rebecca Wyke, vice chancellor for finance and administration, who reportedly was being recruited to leave.
Low described Demeritt’s salary as competitive and fair.
“I think that if you are looking for someone talented and bringing in the skill set Dan has, it requires a higher salary,” he said.
The median salary nationwide for a chief public relations officer is $172,000, according to a 2013-14 survey of administrators in higher education by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
Demeritt has a master’s degree in business administration from USM and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colby College. Since 2012, he has written opinion page columns for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
The university system has reorganized its communications team – for both public relations and government relations work – over the years, with top spots frequently filled by former legislators or top political aides.
As recently as 2010, former legislator John Diamond was executive director of the system’s department of external affairs, which later dissolved.
Low, once deputy chief of staff to Gov. John Baldacci, was hired in 2011 to replace former lawmaker John Lisnik as the system’s government relations liaison. Low’s job was expanded to include public and media relations.