The Gag Order that Wasn’t

Posted Jan. 18, 2011, at 6 p.m.

Much has been made of a “gag” order that Gov. Paul LePage sent to department heads. Governors trying to control what state officials say is nothing new and can be seen as necessary to keep the message consistent. Over time, it becomes clear that such control is burdensome and state officials are given more leeway. That pattern will be repeated with the LePage administration too.

Gov. LePage’s only mistake appears to be putting his intentions in writing.

In a Jan. 10 memo to acting commissioners, the governor said that “all communications with media pertaining to policy areas should be coordinated through my communications office.” He then asked the commissioners to contact his communications director before responding to or initiating communications with the press regarding policy areas.

As for communication with members of the Legislature, Gov. LePage’s memo said they must be coordinated with the appropriate member of his staff, who were listed by policy area.

“Prior to participating in briefings, informal meetings, stakeholder group meetings, hearings or work sessions with legislative committees, please coordinate in advance with the respective policy advisors in my office,” the memo stated.

While this may sound heavy-handed in writing, having a coordinated message is necessary in running state government. Gov. John Baldacci did it. So did Angus King.

Here’s what Dennis Bailey, communications director for Gov. King, said on his blog last week: “Every administration wants to speak with one voice. They want to know in advance if a department head is launching some initiative that will make the phones ring at the governor’s office. And they want to know what commissioners and bureau chiefs are saying to the press before they see it in the paper. Sounds like good management to me.”

Gov. King asked that all press contact be cleared with Mr. Bailey’s office. He had been told to do so by a former governor “who was tired of waking up in the morning to headlines about one of his departments announcing a new program or policy that he knew nothing about,” Mr. Bailey wrote on his blog.

The policy was eased after Mr. Bailey was awakened at midnight by a call from a game warden asking if it was OK to release information about a collision with a deer.

As Gov. LePage, his staff and his department heads settle into their jobs, there will be plenty of freewheeling conversations with legislators and with the press — just as there has been with previous administrations.

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