Commissioner Ricker Hamilton made it seem last Friday as if there would be a fresh start at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services under his watch.

Maine’s largest state agency, over the course of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, has become increasingly closed off from the public and lawmakers and therefore less accountable.

The department last year fired a public records coordinator for releasing an already public document to the BDN. The department seldom responds to reporters’ inquiries. Agency officials have declined to appear before legislative committees to answer lawmakers’ questions. On other occasions, they have responded with, at best, woefully incomplete information to lawmakers’ inquiries about key issues, including the LePage administration’s plans for recertifying Riverview Psychiatric Center, a scathing federal audit that found the department failed to conduct required investigations after the deaths of 133 people with developmental disabilities in state care, and the administration’s plans for spending a $78 million block grant it receives from the federal government each year.

But Hamilton, LePage’s pick to lead Maine DHHS after the departure of Mary Mayhew in May, said last week that he wants to speak frequently with lawmakers and keep them in the loop on major developments, especially as it relates to the LePage administration’s plans to build a psychiatric step-down facility in Bangor — about which administration officials have not been forthcoming with lawmakers and city officials from Augusta and Bangor.

“We want to engage with you,” Hamilton said at his confirmation hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “We want to work with you.”

We welcome this needed change.

Asked if his department, which he has been leading as acting commissioner since Mayhew’s departure, would be willing to provide monthly updates, Hamilton said, “I’ll come here myself. Let’s talk. Tell me where and when.”

He said he no longer wanted to see negative comments about DHHS work in the media.

Hamilton even acknowledged imperfections in DHHS’ past work — something unheard of under Mayhew, who was more likely to deny media reports she didn’t like or blame past gubernatorial administrations for DHHS problems under her watch.

Hamilton said his initial response to a federal audit released in August that detailed the state’s failure to investigate 133 deaths of people with intellectual disabilities and refer cases of suspected abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with intellectual disabilities to law enforcement was “not satisfactory.”

That initial response over the summer was more akin to what would have come from Mayhew: An attempt to explain away the problems by disputing some of the auditors’ findings, saying that some of the lapses in oversight were the result of a departmental reorganization, and saying the department had already corrected issues the auditors identified.

But last Friday, Hamilton stopped faulting the federal auditors.

“Regardless, we did not do the oversight that we should have on that,” he said. “The OIG has given us an opportunity to improve our program. We accept full responsibility.”

Hamilton’s words to lawmakers were encouraging, if difficult to take at face value from the person who oversaw the program the OIG faulted. They at least showed he recognizes that the department he leads is accountable to taxpayers and to the legislators charged with performing oversight.

Hamilton has a lot to prove as the newly confirmed DHHS commissioner. His next step must be to follow through on his promises and actually change the way the department does business.

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