AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that he will withdraw the executive branch completely from participating in a commission aimed at reforming Maine’s public schools funding formula because he is “fed up” with media coverage of his statements and actions as governor.
“As of [Monday] afternoon I have withdrawn the executive branch from that group,” LePage said Tuesday morning during his weekly appearance on WVOM radio. “We’ll provide them whatever data they need but the executive branch will no longer be participating, period.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Mark Eves called Tuesday for Attorney General Janet Mills to sanction LePage for insisting that the commission’s first meeting be private.
Despite LePage’s statements, a Maine Department of Education spokeswoman said Tuesday evening that William Beardsley, the deputy commissioner of education, will continue to serve as chairman of the commission.
The commission, which was created in a bill that resulted from negotiations between the Legislature and the LePage administration, met for the first time Monday in an invitation-only affair at the Blaine House.
The closed-door meeting garnered widespread media coverage because Maine’s open meeting laws state clearly that commission meetings of any sort are supposed to be open to the public. The attorney general and Maine’s public access ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, agreed that Monday’s gathering violated the state’s open meeting law.
On Monday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in a written statement that LePage had “offered to step back from the process.” She did not respond to a request from the BDN for clarification about what that statement meant.
LePage said Tuesday that he has withdrawn himself and the Department of Education from any further work by the commission because he is being treated unfairly.
“The press takes seven seconds of what I say and they make a [expletive] show out of it,” said LePage. “I’m tired of it and I’m not going to participate. … I’m not going to be involved in an organization or any committee that by throwing ideas around, is going to be politically sensitive and on the front page of every newspaper. I am best to withdraw and let those people do their work so they don’t get the criticism that I get when I do anything.”
LePage denied any responsibility for setting up the blue ribbon commission and said if he had done it, it would have been a private process.
“I would have set it up by executive order and it would have been executive meetings,” he said.
According to a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, who attended Monday’s meeting, the idea for the blue ribbon commission was LePage’s.
“The blue ribbon commission was something LePage brought to the table during those negotiations,” said Alfond spokesman Mario Moretto, who is a former Bangor Daily News reporter. “Its mandate and membership composition came from him.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Eves, a North Berwick Democrat serving his second term as House speaker, asked Mills in a letter to “move forward with available sanctions” to ensure that future meetings of the commission are held in public.
Eves said Tuesday that the purpose of his letter is to force the administration to open to everyone meetings that the law says should be public. He said other members of the commission, which includes four members of legislative leadership, school officials and the leaders of the state’s university and community college systems, are not at fault legally for participating in the meeting.
“The governor broke the law,” said Eves. “It’s the governor who convened the meeting. It was the governor who turned the public away. I really think we’ve answered the question of who is really accountable here.”
Eves’ request to Mills, also a Democrat, is largely symbolic. The penalty for violating the state’s open meetings law is a $500 fine, but only a judge presiding over a civil lawsuit can issue that sanction.
Eves said that as House speaker, he will resist efforts by any House Democrats to participate in illegal meetings in the future.
“In the same situation, I would encourage them not to participate,” said Eves. “I’ve made it clear that any future meetings have to be made public.”
Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said in a written statement Tuesday that there is no exemption in public access laws that would have allowed the Commission to Reform Public Education and Improve Student Performance in Maine to meet in private.
“We will be reviewing information we have received before proceeding or commenting further,” said Feeley.
The next meeting of the commission — which will be open to the public — is scheduled for June 6 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris.