Another attempt by Gov. Paul LePage to settle a personal score by punishing a state government entity was rejected this week when a panel the governor created found that the Maine Human Rights Commission is not biased against the state’s businesses. Instead, the review panel said, the commission needs more state funding and staff to better do its job.
It was another rebuke of the governor’s stymying — through threats and withholding funds and personnel — the work of agencies and officials with which he doesn’t agree. It is also a reminder that the governor should stop harassing and undermining state boards and commissions that don’t conform to his distorted vision of how government should work.
In the case of the Maine Human Rights Commission, LePage was upset that the commission in 2014 ruled against the owners of Moody’s Diner, a well-known restaurant in Waldoboro, in a religious discrimination case. A few months later, the governor, with Moody’s officials in the room, called the commission’s executive director, Amy Sneirson, to say the commission was “biased” and that he would go to court if the commission did not cooperate and reopen the case, according to a memo Sneirson wrote.
He then refused a request from the commission to transfer $4,000 from one account to another in order to fill a temporary position.
In March 2015, the commission convened to consider reopening the Moody’s case but voted not to in a denial of LePage’s request.
So LePage issued an executive order in April 2015 that called for an investigation into the commission’s operations.
The report obtained by the BDN on Wednesday is the result of that order, and it doesn’t mince words.
“The Review Panel unanimously agreed that the MHRC, its Commissioners, and its staff are not actually prejudiced, biased or unfair toward respondents or complainants. The vast majority of cases that are heard by the Commission are decided in favor of respondents,” the seven-member group wrote in its 30-page report. Respondents are those accused of human rights offenses, often employers and landlords.
Although it found no bias, the panel said perceptions of bias stem from misunderstandings of the commission and how it works. For example, the commission is required by law to investigate all properly filed complaints that it receives. It doesn’t have the staff it needs to do this quickly and efficiently, the report stated.
Accusing government officials and agencies of malfeasance, then punishing them in some fashion or demanding an investigation is a familiar pattern for LePage.
He killed the state Board of Corrections, and any hope of a coordinated corrections system, by refusing to appoint members to the panel because he believed control of the state’s jails should be returned to the counties.
LePage refused to sign what are usually routine financial orders from the attorney general’s office and refused to approve raises for its attorneys. LePage at the time was (and continues to be) at odds with Attorney General Janet Mills over numerous issues, including her refusal to have her office represent the state in litigation over the Affordable Care Act and social services. The state, which was represented by private-sector attorneys at taxpayer expense, did not prevail in either case.
In the case of Land for Maine’s Future, the state land conservation program, LePage refused to sign off on voter-approved bonds. He said the program only benefited rich people, and he launched an “investigation” into the program, which resulted in a 194-page document that essentially recounted LMF’s history and operating processes, but pointed to nothing it was doing wrong.
The governor’s grudge-induced witch hunts waste limited state resources and time that would be better used serving the people of Maine.