AUGUSTA — Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner nominee Ricker Hamilton faced a raft of tough questions, mostly related to insufficient communication and lax oversight, before a panel of lawmakers voted Friday to recommend his confirmation as head of the state’s largest agency.

All but one member of the Health and Human Services Committee voted to approve his nomination, which will be subject to final confirmation by the Senate during a special session Monday.

Hamilton, a 40-year state employee who has worked under six different governors, has been acting DHHS commissioner since May, when his predecessor, Mary Mayhew, resigned before launching a gubernatorial campaign. He has held numerous positions within the department, including as head of the Office of Aging and Disability Services.

Hamilton presented himself Friday as someone who will continue Mayhew’s goal of streamlining the department while working to improve the frayed relationship between DHHS and some lawmakers.

“I’ve always tried to maintain the highest levels of integrity and commitment,” he said during the four-hour hearing. “My goal is to have an open-door policy.”

Rep. Dale Denno, a Democrat from Cumberland who worked in DHHS with Hamilton, said he was inclined to support his one-time colleague but still has concerns about persistent problems that have plagued the department. The biggest of those, Denno said, was a recent federal audit that found numerous deficiencies within the state’s system for providing community based services for adults with developmental disabilities.

Hamilton acknowledged that his department’s initial response to the audit was unsatisfactory, and he pledged to address the concerns that have been raised. Hamilton said DHHS had just sent a revised response to the federal government explaining how the state will address the deficiencies spelled out in the audit.

Other lawmakers questioned Hamilton about the ongoing controversies involving the Riverview Psychiatric Center, the governor’s plans to build a psychiatric “step-down” facility in Bangor and the state’s response to the opioid epidemic.

Although some Democrats had concerns, they were pleased that Hamilton has been more responsive to their questions than Mayhew, who stepped down to run for the Blaine House in June.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, the Democratic chair of the committee, talked about meeting with Hamilton in his office recently, something she had never done before he became acting commissioner.

But Hymanson was critical of Hamilton, too, or least of the department he’s been leading. Speaking about the agency’s proposal to build a psychiatric step-down facility, she said she never felt like she got straight answers.

“It’s been a duck and weave,” she said, adding later that what Hamilton considered obstacles put up by lawmakers, she regarded as legislative oversight.

Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, asked Hamilton whom he considered to be Maine’s most vulnerable population. Hamilton replied by listing the elderly and those with intellectual or physical disabilities.

He did not mention those stuck in poverty, which McCreight noted, and then later told committee members that he has not spent as much time hearing from those in poverty as he has from others.

When it came time for public comments Friday, most were supportive of Hamilton’s nomination, although some who spoke were old friends and colleagues of his.

“He has a proven track record of success and collaboration,” said Jim Martin, former director of the Office of Child and Family Services. “I can’t think of anyone more qualified.”

Kenneth Capron, who runs a statewide organization called Memory Works and has dealt with Hamilton in the past, was less complimentary. He cast Hamilton as someone who says all the right things publicly but is very different in private.

“If you don’t like him, you’ll know it painfully,” Capron said, adding that others were likely reluctant to speak out of fear of retaliation.

Hamilton on a few occasions addressed critical media coverage of some issues involving DHHS and bristled at the contention by some that he and his staff are, “this faceless group of people that are uncaring.”

And while he said he’d be glad to meet with lawmakers anytime, he offered a warning too.

“We’ll see if things we discussed are in the paper four hours after we talk,” he said.

Although many had concerns about ongoing DHHS issues, even Democrats seemed convinced that Hamilton was qualified to lead the department.

“There is no question that our committee has often found ourselves at odds with the leadership within the Department of Health and Human Services,” Hymanson said after the hearing. “I was heartened to hear promises of openness, transparency and cooperation from acting Commissioner Hamilton during our committee hearing. Mr. Hamilton certainly has the skills and institutional knowledge of DHHS to transition seamlessly into this new role and I hope this is the start of a more collaborative relationship.”

The exception was Rep. Jennifer Parker, a Democrat from South Berwick. She said she couldn’t vote for a career employee like Hamilton who has been a top administrator during a time when the agency has been plagued with problems.

“I didn’t feel as though I could support a nomination that will lead to more of the same,” she said in an interview.

Hamilton, before he left the committee room Friday, approached Parker and said he looked forward to working with her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get your vote, ” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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