Gov. Paul LePage’s executive order exempting his new business advisory council from the state’s Freedom of Access Act is drawing criticism from Democrats who say the state’s Republican chief executive is trying to conceal an extreme agenda.
LePage addressed the issue Wednesday morning in Augusta, adding that he planned a total of four advisory groups. The other groups would advise him on K-12 education, higher education and environmental issues.
“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 business people, the dilemmas they face … and they don’t want to be in the press,” LePage told reporters outside the Blaine House, according to a recording provided to the Bangor Daily News. “They’re not public workers. They’re trying to help the state.”
But Democrats said the order specifically exempting the advisory groups from state laws ensuring public access to public proceedings flew in the face of LePage’s pledge to make government more transparent.
“Just a few weeks ago the governor said, and I quote, ‘I think it’s critical that the governor is transparent.’ With this order, he once again shows the people of Maine that he can’t be trusted,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
“There is only one reason for this action. He is going to create more policy that is incredibly unpopular with Maine people. If more than 38 percent of Maine people supported him or his extreme agenda, he could hold these meetings in the cafeteria,” said Grant.
Although he signed the order last week, LePage said he just learned Wednesday morning that the advisory groups would be exempt from public access laws. LePage later clarified that he was “fully aware” the order contained the exemption, but was surprised it became a political issue.
LePage defended the need for closed meetings, noting the advisory nature of the councils, which would have no power to create or approve state policy.
“There’s no secrecy here,” LePage said. “If they want to do it on the steps of the Blaine House I’m fine with it, too. If they want to do it over in my office, I’m fine. But some of these people want to be frank and honest and open, and they don’t want to be exposed to the same scrutiny and exposure that we see every day.
“These are think tanks. They are people who will give you suggestions. We can take them or leave them,” LePage added. “It has nothing to do with how the government is going to be run.”
Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and owner of Capitol News Service, on Wednesday questioned the need for the exemption in LePage’s order, saying there’s already enough leeway in Maine’s laws to allow the governor to meet in private with his advisers.
Previous governors, he said, have created similar advisory groups and allowed public access to their meetings. By the same token, those same governors at times have used their discretion to meet with those advisers in private, which is allowed under the law.
Leary has covered state government for decades, and to his knowledge, no other governor has invoked his power to completely exempt an advisory group from Maine’s Freedom of Access laws. Shielding the official group — including potentially the identities of its members — from any public scrutiny is problematic, he said.
“By totally exempting them, we don’t know who they are,” said Leary, whose stories appear in the BDN. “And they have the ear of the governor.”