December 1, 2012

LePage: Local, U.S. agencies blocking him

At the heart of the controversy is the governor's attempt to restructure the state's work force training system.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A letter written by the U.S. Department of Labor, but never mailed, suggests the department was colluding with local work force training boards to prevent the state from reorganizing its job training system, Gov. Paul LePage said Friday.

The letter from Jane Oates, an assistant secretary of labor, said the department had approved the state's request to withdraw LePage's plan to restructure the state's work force training system.

LePage said in a statement released Friday that the state's current system gives too much authority to local work force boards, which manage job training programs. His administration's plan calls for a new state board, which LePage appointed earlier this year, to control the system with help from local chambers of commerce.

The Department of Labor letter acknowledges receiving the state's proposed plan on Sept. 12 and acknowledges receiving the state's request to withdraw that proposal on Oct. 18.

The problem is, the state never sent a withdrawal request.

Instead, after learning informally that the Labor Department was likely to reject the proposal, the LePage administration asked for a formal denial, which would allow it to appeal the decision -- withdrawing the proposal would have given the state until April to file a revised plan.

The Labor Department issued the formal denial earlier this month.

LePage said Friday that the Oates letter, which was emailed Tuesday by the head of one of the local training boards to dozens of recipients, shows that federal officials were engaging in "inappropriate backchannel communication" with local Maine boards, "revealing the overreach of the federal government into state decision-making."

The governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, went further, saying the federal department's aim is "to deny Gov. LePage a successful job training program that puts Mainers back to work."

LePage sent a letter Friday to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, demanding a "thorough investigation" of why the letter was written and how it was released.

Attempts to reach Oates were unsuccessful and a message left for a Labor Department spokesman was not returned Friday evening.

LePage said the letter was "leaked" to him, although it was sent in a mass email Tuesday from Ryan Pelletier, executive director of the Aroostook-Washington Workforce Investment Board, to more than 60 people, including Jeanne Paquette, LePage's labor commissioner.

Within a half-hour of sending the email, Pelletier said, he was contacted by regional Department of Labor officials, who told him the letter from Oates had never officially been sent. Pelletier said he passed that information on to Paquette on Friday morning.

Pelletier said Friday that he was not told why the letter had been drafted and not sent or how it had been released. It was not marked as a draft and carried Oates' signature.

It was also unclear why the Labor Department planned to reject the state's proposal.

Pelletier said he was forwarded a copy of the letter from Mike Bourret, the executive director of the Coastal Counties Workforce Board, another of the local boards, and doesn't know where Bourret got it. Attempts to reach Bourret on Friday were unsuccessful.

Pelletier said the LePage administration made the letter public for political reasons.

"They're upset that ultimately the plan that they put together wasn't approved," he said. "They seem to think that there must have been something behind the scenes that happened and that just wasn't the case. They're trying to suggest that the (federal) Department of Labor and local boards were working to defeat it."

Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, said local boards don't want to lose control over job-training programs, so they have opposed the LePage restructuring.

She also said that local board members, who are unpaid, would be eliminated under the LePage plan, and paid administrators, like Pelletier, would lose their jobs.

Rabinowitz said the LePage administration believes the local boards duplicate efforts and put too much money into "soft" retraining efforts, such as resume-writing and interviewing skills, and not enough into "hard" retraining, such as apprenticeship programs.

The new structure in LePage's proposal, controlled by a state board, would allow local chambers of commerce to provide input on retraining needs, she said, and those programs would be streamlined.

"Each layer of this bureaucracy is skimming money off the top for administrative costs and the system as a whole isn't working together." Rabinowitz said. "The local boards are the problem."

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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