‘Noel’ in short supply in Augusta

Newly elected House Speaker Sara Gideon met with Gov. Paul LePage on Dec. 9 and came out thinking “easy-peasy!” They had had a “productive” meeting, said Gideon, about building a forensic psychiatric facility to house a court-mandated population needing a secure facility but not acute mental health care.

A controversy blossomed over Democrats’ claims that they did not have sufficient information on the proposal, a claim that caused the Legislative Council to vote twice against the facility. In his radio address Dec. 13, the governor asserted that his full plan for the facility was online and available to one and all, and he called it “unconscionable that Democrats are being obstructionists just to score political points.”

The preferred site for the facility is adjacent to the existing Riverview Psychiatric Center, but that location would require approval by the Legislative Council. Citing legislators’ alleged refusal to cooperate, the governor threatened to find a location outside of Augusta, in which case he could proceed without the Legislative Council’s consent.

According to Gideon, she and the governor agreed on the Riverview location and that a public hearing was “a likely, logical forum” to vet the proposal. The goal was to have a plan by Christmas. Everyone went home happy.

Everyone except the governor, that is, who apparently did not attend the same meeting. No sooner had Gideon signaled that her initial meeting with the governor had led to progress than the governor come out with his own statement. Agreement? What agreement? “I told Sara Gideon you go down your path, and I will go down mine, and whoever gets to the finish line first wins,” said the governor.

Ironically, one of the alternative sites the governor is considering is the speaker’s home town of Freeport. How that (or any) community would take to having this sort of facility in its midst remains to be seen.

Former Speaker Mark Eves was famously cross-threaded with LePage through most of his term. Here endeth the hope that a new speaker could hit the reset button. For the past 26 years, Maine’s mental health system has operated under a consent decree. Through all those years, the state has not been able to come into full compliance.

All is not lost. The governor did put in a personal appearance at a meeting of Senate Democrats, and peace prevailed. Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson extended the offer to the chief executive’s office and expected at best that a representative of the governor would attend. Surprise!

The governor said he had never been invited before. This certainly marks an improvement over the relationship with Senate Democrats last term when communications, such as they were, were more of the antagonistic variety.

They even found a scrap of common ground, said Jackson, in promoting the use of heat pumps to supplement Maine’s energy infrastructure.

There is another longstanding controversy between the executive and legislative branches that has moved to center stage again. William Beardsley, who is and is not the commissioner of education, has resigned. He previously served on the state Board of Education and was nominated by LePage to be commissioner in 2015.

However, when questions arose that threatened to cloud his confirmation by the Legislature, the governor pulled the nomination and executed a series of technical maneuvers that kept Beardsley in control of the department but without the actual title of commissioner.

Beardsley’s replacement, at least temporarily, will be Robert Hasson, who has been serving as acting commissioner. On Dec. 23, Hasson will become … acting commissioner. He holds a doctorate in education and has been a teacher, a principal and a superintendent.

It remains to be seen whether the governor will nominate Hasson to the official post of commissioner. Democrats, including Education Committee member Sen. Rebecca Millett, have made favorable noises about that possibility, as has the Maine Education Association, which represents most public school teachers in the state.

Given Hasson’s high marks among the education community, the governor should go ahead and nominate the man. For too long, the department has been limping along without officially sanctioned leadership. It has been an embarrassing conclusion to Beardsley’s many years of public service and a hindrance to the functioning of the department.

All this will fade from the front pages for the next week or so. Winter is upon us, and for the rest of this month, there will be quiet. Whatever you celebrate in December, it is a good time to pull your family close and to look out for those in need of a meal, a warm coat or a friend.

It is also a time of resolution. Time to let go of whatever makes you angry, hateful or hurtful, to resolve to be a force for good. So deck the halls and break out the eggnog. It’s our state again for a few more months, and we know how to make the most of it. Go forth and frolic.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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