A party of one

Last Friday, Maine State Police and Department of Corrections staff, under orders from Gov. LePage, descended on the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport before first light. Their message to the prison’s 51 employees? “Good morning. You’re fired.”

Their message to all 63 prisoners was hardly less jarring. They were being transferred immediately to the Charleston Correctional Facility 122 miles away.

Downeast Correctional Facility employees, local officials, Washington County legislators and lawmakers in Augusta — Republicans and Democrats — had been kept in the dark until the deed was done.

It’s only fair to note that Lepage, like several governors before him, has long promoted closing the Machiasport facility, calling it too expensive to operate. Recent staff reductions from a high of 80 employees to the current 51 would seem to support the governor’s fiscal concerns. An annual budget of over $5 million for 63 inmates, more than $79,000 a year per inmate, is hard to defend.

Closure may have been inevitable and prudent, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to implement policy. This is particularly true when the action overrides the intent of the Legislature, which funded the Machiasport facility in the biennial budget. The abrupt closure ignores the deliberations of the Joint Standing Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety. The correctional facility was established by statute, and the governor cannot unilaterally amend a statute without violating the Maine Constitution’s separation of powers provisions.

But legalities and legislators’ feelings matter less than what this action does to Washington County, Maine’s fifth-largest county by land but one of the least densely populated. Washington County’s average income is vastly below the state average with unemployment rates much higher than other Maine counties. The decision to close the Downeast Correctional Facility will leave 51 employees without a paycheck, affecting many families and small local businesses that counted on the prison’s work-release program for their employees. There are no winners, and to many residents, the governor’s abrupt action is a kick in the gut lacking consideration for the impact to the community and county at large.

With all due respect for fiscal prudence, residents of Maine should expect their governor to handle delicate issues graciously, demonstrating compassion for the employees and the communities affected by the loss.

Maine has lost large employers before, from airbases such as Dow, Loring and Brunswick, to shoe manufacturers, paper mills and government institutions. The resulting economic strife reveals too heavy a reliance on central, large employers susceptible to change or loss. Cold comfort for Washington County, but a harsh reality.

Unfortunately, it will be some time before the dust settles and the recriminations subside. The governor’s go-it-alone brand, thumbing his nose at the state’s elected lawmakers, does nothing to advance the cause of civil debate and conscientious lawmaking. At the moment, the sole positive effect of the Machiasport debacle is bipartisanship: Both parties are condemning the action.

It is now time for leaders of both parties and the governor to face reality. Washington County, with a deepwater port, natural resources, open space and a fabulous coastline, needs and deserves our help and support. To leave the county’s residents to struggle on their own is no longer acceptable.

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