With hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at stake and the economic viability of the Katahdin region in the balance, I am gobsmacked that a deal between Millinocket, East Millinocket and Gov. Paul LePage was sealed with just a handshake.
A $250,000, multiyear agreement between the state and two towns rests on a handshake? Somebody’s word against somebody else’s and nothing more?
Gov. LePage has two lawyers in his office and the largest law firm in the state, the Office of the Attorney General, at his disposal. It’s difficult to imagine how such a complex deal, involving long-term liability and economic development, would hinge on an agreement that isn’t written down.
According to the reporting by the Bangor Daily News, that’s exactly what has happened.
Last year, the state agreed to acquire the Dolby landfill as part of an effort to revive two closed mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. The landfill is a liability and without state intervention, it’s unlikely that a new buyer could have been found for the mills. It was a pickle, but the LePage administration did the right thing by agreeing to purchase the landfill and breathe new economic life into the region.
Taking on the landfill was politically charged, and a number of Democrats have tried to make an issue out of the purchase. But bringing good jobs back to the region, I believe, was a good investment of state resources.
Government has a role — in fact, an obligation — to fight for jobs. Sometimes, those efforts are unsuccessful or the price is too high. But I don’t think any governor should sit back and allow the lifeblood of a region slip away.
As part of the deal for the state to purchase the landfill, an agreement was apparently struck between the governor and the two towns.
The governor maintains that the towns agreed to a multiyear deal to pay $50,000 each to maintain the landfill, while the state would contribute $150,000 per year. Millinocket says the deal was for one year.
And that’s where things have turned nasty.
According to Bangor Daily News reporter Nick Sambides Jr., the governor ordered that economic aid slated for the town be withheld, costing Millinocket $206,000 in Sudden and Severe Impact funding.
Leaders in Millinocket have responded with threats of a lawsuit and by saying that the governor is a liar and a bully, and even claimed that the governor has threatened to withhold support for a critical natural gas pipeline if the town doesn’t play ball.
Intergovernmental agreements are tricky business. Sometimes the details get fudged to reach agreement and then the harder aspects of a deal have to get worked out after the fact. But the events that appear to be unraveling between Millinocket and the governor go beyond anything that is appropriate.
Eventually, we may be able to determine the facts about the landfill deal.
But here’s what we know already. Gov. LePage took a fast-and-loose approach to a deal over a dangerous landfill, apparently failing to document the terms of management with the two towns most directly affected.
When a dispute emerged — and with no paper trail to set the record straight – the governor withheld much needed aid that was meant to offset massive economic loses. He punished the people of the town for a disagreement between local and state government.
And then he dared the town to sue.
The work of government is complex and it requires men and women who can put aside their own anger — even if justified — and do the right thing for the people.
Leadership means rising above the fray and keeping a cool head, even when people are taking political shots at you. And it means finding a path forward and solving problems, not making them worse with red-faced rhetoric.
While LePage’s supporters seem to like it when he goes volcanic on a reporter or rival politician, I wonder if even they are offended by such a display when it’s directed at the people of a region who have suffered through such tough economic times.
The governor did the right thing when he worked to save those mills. But now he’s blowing it. Economic retaliation and threats are no way to solve a dispute. Especially when you’re the governor of the state.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.