AUGUSTA, Maine — Pre-empting a Thursday legislative hearing on his plan to build a forensic mental health unit, Gov. Paul LePage followed through this week on his stated intention of placing the facility in Bangor to avoid the need for legislative approval.

Gilbert Bilodeau, interim director of the administration’s Bureau of General Services, informed the Legislative Council on Tuesday that the application for the Augusta project is officially withdrawn and that council approval is “unnecessary.”

The withdrawal came before lawmakers held a public hearing Thursday afternoon in an effort to move a controversial Augusta proposal forward, even though LePage said weeks ago he has moved on after Democratic legislative leaders put up roadblocks to his plan.

LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services have been working for years to find a way to care for people put in the state’s mental health system by the courts or Department of Corrections but who don’t need hospital-level care. Creation of the facility is part of the administration’s efforts to restore federal certification of the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center and protect millions of dollars of federal funding.

The Legislature’s appropriations and health and human services committees met for hours Thursday in a public hearing aimed at making recommendations to legislative leaders.

The committees took no action Thursday, instead setting a Jan. 18 deadline to send recommendations from each committee back to the Legislative Council after submitting questions to the LePage administration. The next scheduled council meeting is Jan. 26.

The sticking point for lawmakers and labor officials is the plan to have the facility run by a private company. There also is concern that the details of the project, including how patients would be served and how it would be paid for, have not received legislative approval.

Participants in Thursday’s hearing ranged from mental health professionals to Riverview residents, but there was no one from the LePage administration. Carrying the most sway was Daniel Wathen, the courtmaster who oversees the state’s administration of mental health services under a court decision called the AMHI Consent Decree.

Wathen said the forensic unit is needed and that although it might be more convenient if built near Riverview in Augusta, it also could work in another location such as Bangor. He urged lawmakers to back the Augusta location in order to give the state options.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t work in Bangor,” Wathen said. “I’m just saying I’d like [the executive branch] to have the opportunity to see which of these sites works the best.”

Wathen is one of the relatively few people who have seen details of the state’s plan to have a private company run the forensic unit. He said he couldn’t share details because he saw them in a draft request for proposals that has not been released to the public. Wathen said the state’s plan is generally in line with the terms of the consent decree and can be adjusted through the courts if needed.

Several people said they are worried about how patients at the facility will be treated, concerns they say have deepened by a lack of information.

“Think about how we would want our family members to live,” said Simonne Maline, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine. “We want patients to have the most opportunity for treatment and recovery.”

Don Beauchesne, who is a patient at Riverview, said the debate over the forensic unit has caused stress among residents. Their concerns are largely about day-to-day issues such as what equipment would be allowed in their rooms.

“When we ask questions, we are told nobody has the answer to the questions,” said Beauchesne. “I’m here to ask that we, the patients who will be living there, be included in questions about running the new facility.”

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.