Usually, more communication from our politicians is something for which we do not long. In fact, we are sick, sick, sick of hearing from them. Trooping to the microphones at the least provocation, overwhelming us with trite, focus group-tested politico-babble, our government leaders, we wish, would just chill.
Until they do. Our own governor, Paul LePage, largely has shut down communications with the world outside his office. Some may say that’s a good thing. But is it?
In his first years in office, his press conferences were a thing of wonder. It took little to agitate our chief executive to the point of finger-wagging, red-faced fury. His intemperate remarks have been oft reported, and the subjects of his diatribes wear his verbal assaults as a badge of honor.
More recently, he has chosen to go dark. First he severed relations with certain members of the media; now he has pretty much shut down contact with all but a chosen few in the communications world – and those are the few who share or support his views.
This unique approach of limiting the normal give-and-take between a governor and the public means that what we learn about his plans and the motivation behind them comes through a veil of like-mindedness. Absent are the probing questions a public official should welcome in order to demonstrate the soundness of his thinking about ideas he puts forward.
In May, after walking out of a public meeting at the University of Maine in Farmington when two protestors popped up at the edge of the crowd, he announced that he would suspend attendance at further “ceremonial” events because he has become a “distraction.” He has refused to meet with Democratic leadership and has limited his contact with the media to a select few, refusing most requests for interviews.
Yes, he has undertaken a systematic effort to get his views directly to the people in the form of public meetings he has been holding all over the state. This is an effort for which he should be commended. But to describe them as “town hall” meetings belies their nature. Even at those “open” meetings, participation is limited, questions are sometimes vetted, and media attendance controlled.
At Husson University in January, the governor spoke to an invitation-only crowd that his staff said was chosen for political diversity. At many events, questions must be submitted in writing. This may help reduce duplication and screen out the truly bizarre inquiry, but it puts another filter between the governor and his constituents.
This is not to say that we, the people, do not leave something to be desired at these events. Disagreement with the governor is not license to disrupt a meeting or shout down the speaker. But rude behavior is a trial of public service, and one that most politicians learn to handle with at least a teaspoon of grace.
At times, the governor has handled protestors with a light touch, calling two frequent fliers his “groupies.” But at other times, they have gotten under his skin. It seems as though he is not lacking in political skills, he is just unable to deploy them much of the time they are needed.
LePage makes no secret of his frustration with the press, blaming its members for putting a stick in the spokes of his forward progress. “I get my message out by doing town halls, meeting people on Saturday mornings in my office and talking with anyone who will listen, except for the press,” he said at a Boothbay Harbor meeting.
His town hall meetings have not always stood up well to fact-checking. The governor is not one to mislead people intentionally; it is not in his nature. However, the facts and figures he puts out at these meetings often have been questioned or quickly disproved.
Those Saturday morning meetings are another unique aspect of the governor’s administration. An online form asks for contact information, your availability, the subject you wish to address and previous contact you may have had with state agencies about the matter. If you are selected – the sheer number of requests are beyond what can be accommodated – you will have 10-15 minutes to air your concern with the governor.
It is a nice opportunity for the citizenry, but at the same time, it does not necessarily provide the governor with a well-rounded picture of the matter at hand. Too often, the governor’s desire to help triggers a move toward a solution before the problem is fully understood.
The governor’s embargo on direct communication with the media is an obstacle to his own success. Holding public meetings is no substitute for being available to the media, where those who follow state government can dig closely into the chief executive’s positions and agenda and help the rest of us understand where he is trying to lead us. Without sufficient access, if press reports do not accurately reflect the governor’s intentions, whose fault is that?