AUGUSTA, Maine — The Land for Maine’s Future board of directors convened another meeting Tuesday without a quorum and was unable to vote on projects that have been awaiting action for months.
The board also was unsure whether — without a quorum — it can ask for a legal opinion on a new matter: That Gov. Paul LePage, in addition to blocking the organization’s access to bond funding, is blocking its use of about $37,000 that has been privately donated.
During Tuesday’s meeting, some board members also questioned whether Land for Maine’s Future even exists anymore as an operational organization.
Among those absent from Tuesday’s meeting were all three members of LePage’s Cabinet who serve on the board. All three also failed to attend a board meeting in July.
Board member Neil Piper kicked off Tuesday’s meeting with a statement about how the board will operate — or not — in the future.
“The governor has elected to shut down the process for political and personal reasons,” said Piper. “Even if funds are eventually restored, many of the approved projects will be seriously delayed.”
Piper’s statement was one in a variety of ways that the board’s frustration over LePage’s actions and the lack of a quorum boiled over during Tuesday afternoon’s meeting.
“Let’s live up to the commitment that the state wants,” said board member Jim Gorman. “These projects are what the voters voted for. Jesus, I’m pissed off. I can’t do anything. I’m just sitting here with my thumb up my ass.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News that the governor “did not tell anyone to be absent.” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher was in Rhode Island on business and Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb is attending a national conference.
“These absences were both known to the board in advance,” said Bennett.
Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock had to bow out of the meeting unexpectedly, according to Bennett. Woodcock was involved in an accident about 7:20 a.m. Tuesday when his 2015 Chevrolet pickup truck collided with a guardrail on Route 27 in New Sharon. He was not injured, according to the Sun Journal newspaper. It was unclear whether the accident was related to Woodcock’s absence.
The Land for Maine’s Future Program has been at a standstill for most of this year, since LePage blocked the sale of conservation bonds that were approved by voters in 2010 and 2012, saying he would not authorize them unless the Legislature agreed to his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands to fund a home heating program for senior citizens.
This isn’t the first time LePage has used his authority to block or approve bonds as leverage during his tenure as governor. In 2013, he blocked the sale of up to $100 million in voter approved bonds after the Legislature turned back his attempt to eliminate municipal revenue sharing. In 2014, he again blocked bonds until his demand that the state’s rainy day fund be replenished with at least $60 million was met.
LePage also is blocking the Land for Maine’s Future program’s use of $2 million in cash on hand that comes from bonds that were previously sold, which means essentially that the organization can’t move at all on a range of projects that await funding.
And finally, LePage won’t let the organization use about $37,000 it has collected in private donations over the years, which Land for Maine’s Future Director Sarah Demers said she tried recently to use for legal fees related to the vetting of conservation deal agreements. Demers said the LePage administration denied that request.
Board member Ben Emory and others suggested the governor may be overstepping the bounds of his authority.
“I wonder whether we have the authority to order [Demers] to pay the lawyers. … Maybe we should start pushing. We haven’t done much of a job of pushing back on this guy [LePage],” said Emory.
The board’s original agenda for Tuesday showed that several conservation projects were up for votes on amendments or new spending, many of which couldn’t be acted on at a previous meeting because the board did not have a quorum.
The projects on Tuesday’s agenda were to be the Roberts Farm/Noyes Mountain in Norway; the Bangor and Aroostook Rail Trail; Tide Mill Farms in Edmunds; Clapboard Island in Falmouth; Howard Hill in Augusta; and A&R Enterprises, a working waterfront project in St. George. Those projects were later removed from the agenda.
In addition to blocking the funding, LePage has ordered an investigation of the organization, which later morphed into members of his executive team intervening in the production of a report Land for Maine’s Future generates for the Legislature. That report is due later this year. Part of LePage’s probe involves how land in the program is appraised before it is purchased.
LePage has said in the past that his intention is not to kill the program, although he also has been very critical of the organization, saying its projects primarily benefit wealthy organizations and individuals while there are vulnerable Mainers with greater need for the state’s limited financial resources.
Environmental groups have pushed back aggressively at that argument.
Earlier this year, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced legislation to force LePage — and future governors — to sign bonds that are approved by voters. The bill passed through the Legislature but died after LePage vetoed it. The veto was sustained in the House of Representatives, mostly by Republicans.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and former Republican senator, has been one of LePage’s most brutal critics regarding the governor’s blockage of the bond sales.
“I just want to express how deeply saddened and frustrated I am for you folks,” said Trahan. “You have been cast into a political meat grinder not of your making. You have done nothing wrong.”