AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has put plans to create a confidential business advisory council on hold because he said he wants to shield the council’s potential members from controversy.
On March 3, LePage created the council by executive order with the stipulation that the council’s activities would be conducted in private and shielded from Maine laws that grant public access to most governmental proceedings. In addition to his business advisory council, LePage said he intended to create similar groups around the issues of K-12 schools, higher education and the environment.
“Basically, these are people that we want to be able to sit around a table and say it the way it is, talk to us as businesspeople, about the dilemmas they face,” said LePage to reporters on March 9, according to a previous report in the Bangor Daily News. “They don’t want to be in the press.”
LePage’s executive order stated that the council’s records and activities would be exempt from the state’s freedom of access law. That stipulation drew immediate fire from the Maine Democratic Party and others, who accused LePage of cloaking the council’s activities in order to advance policies that would be unpopular with Maine people.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett rejected that argument Wednesday and said LePage’s intent was to be up-front with Maine people by stating his intention to keep the council’s activities secret.
“It’s my understanding that he is no longer going to have these business advisory councils,” said Bennett. “It’s interesting how media puts a spin on things. The governor understands that he is under constant scrutiny. He is trying to look out for the business people in Maine and make sure that they’re not going to be ostracized for being part of this. He’s looking out for the best interests of those folks.”
Title 1, chapter 13 of Maine law states that advisory council activities are considered public proceedings “unless the law, resolve or Executive Order establishing, authorizing or organizing the advisory organization specifically exempts the organization from the application of this subchapter.”
Though that language makes LePage’s executive order legal, Bennett said LePage didn’t want the backlash affecting members of the council.
“The media really came after him on this issue,” said Bennett. Asked what she meant by that, she said, “It was the content that the media chose to publish that was the problem.”
Maine Democratic Party Executive Director Mary-Erin Casale said she is relieved that LePage has backtracked.
“We would like to congratulate the governor for recognizing the importance of transparency in our government,” said Casale in a prepared statement.
Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, who met with LePage on Tuesday, said he told the governor that he is already entitled to conduct confidential meetings.
“He can meet privately with any group any time he wants to,” said Leary, who is also a reporter for the Bangor Daily News and other media outlets. “My argument to him was simple: you don’t need this provision.”
Dick Kelso, administrator of the Economic Development Council of Maine, said he supports LePage’s intent.
“What the governor was trying to do was important,” said Kelso. “You can’t do all things working in a glass room. In economic development, you’ve got to have some ability to speak privately.”
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“I’m sure his motives were to encourage an atmosphere that’s as open and confidential as possible, where people would feel free to discuss ideas,” said Connors.
Bennett said LePage will not officially rescind the executive order, saying instead that it is “on hold for now.” Bennett said the administration will continue to solicit feedback from the business community through public appearances by the governor and legislators, as well as sifting through data collected in the past few months during LePage’s Red Tape Removal Audits.
“What the governor wants to do is get the word out that Maine is no longer a harsh place to do business, and I think he means it,” said Kelso. “We need that in Maine.”