AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage's attempt to ensure that a consistent message flows from state departments to lawmakers and the press has prompted concern from Democrats that information to constituents could be slowed or stopped altogether.
On Monday, LePage's administration sent a memo to all acting commissioners that communications with the media on policy matters must first be cleared with the governor's communications team. Lawmakers seeking meetings with department heads will also be required to go through senior staff.
LePage said the directive was "not a big deal" and common practice for an administration in transition.
The governor has nominated seven of 15 cabinet members to head various state departments, but only two are in place. Nine department heads are holdovers from Gov. John Baldacci's administration, while five appointees have yet to be confirmed by the Legislature.
"It’s like a business," LePage said. "If I’m going to be running a business, I like to know what my employees are up to. Let’s have open communication. I have no problem with anyone speaking to anyone. Just keep us educated."
But some Democrats worried the policy would delay information to constituents. House minority leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said she'd been contacted by some lawmakers who were either denied meetings with commissioners or told by the department's communications staff that information couldn't be released without clearing the governor's office.
In recent days, media calls to some departments have not been returned. Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, said that may be because some employees have left.
Cain said she understood the need for careful information flow during transition. However, she did not want the policy to prevent constituents, via media or lawmakers, from obtaining government information.
"It shouldn’t be hard to get a fish stocking list from the Department of Marine Resources, for example," Cain said. "That should be automatic. My hope is that this won’t be become a burdensome way of keeping information from people. We should all be hoping for a more open, transparent and accountable government."
When asked if she was concerned the policy would be a way for the executive branch to keep tabs on lawmakers, Cain said, "If the new administration is trying to keep tabs on legislators, it’s going to be a full-time job for them. There’s a lot of us and we have a lot of questions. . . . I hope it’s not an attempt to track our information because that will take more of this administration's time and resources than I’d like to see."
Demeritt said the policy wasn't a gag order, but a practice consistent with Gov. John Baldacci's administration.
"All we're saying is, things that are policy-related don’t get the governor in the newspaper," he said. "We want a chance to understand what’s going to be in the paper and what people ask questions about."
He added, "There’s no silencing anybody. The administration needs to speak with a consistent voice on policy matters."
Demeritt said the policy would remain in effect after LePage fills his cabinet posts.
"Frankly, if someone in a department somewhere is talking in a way that’s kind of sabotage . . . they’d hear from us," he said.