AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage's Cabinet suffered a loss Wednesday as the chief of the state's Marine Resources agency tendered his resignation.
Norman Olsen, who signed on as the head of the Department of Marine Resources in January, abruptly announced he was leaving his post after meeting with the governor Wednesday.
Olsen said he resigned after a meeting at which an aide for LePage told Olsen he would be polling his detractors after Labor Day. Administration officials told Olsen several weeks ago they had received complaints that Olsen wasn't listening to people in the industry, but the officials wouldn't reveal who was doing the complaining, he said.
At the meeting, Olsen said LePage and two of his staff members gave Olsen an ultimatum.
"They reaffirmed, yes, Labor Day, that's the crunch time. If you don't get the numbers, you'll have to leave," Olsen said. "I said that's an impossibility. I was three-quarters of the way to the door, I turned around and hauled out a letter of resignation and said you might as well have this because you've set me up for mission impossible. And I said, 'By the way, I don't like being threatened.'"
That was at about 9:15 a.m. Later in the day, Olsen issued a statement suggesting that he was being forced out by the governor and his team. At issue: Olsen said his pledge for complete transparency rankled some in the governor's office.
"At the Maine Fishermen's Forum in March, I addressed completely and transparently every question put before me by an audience of some 400, including many members of the press and the Marine Resources Committee," Olsen wrote in the statement. "The governor told the same gathering, 'Commissioner Olsen is in charge.'
"Regrettably, while I have maintained my commitments, the governor's office has not maintained its resolve.
"Since then, the governor and his senior team have repeatedly given private audiences to groups and individuals objecting to my open discussion of the issues," Olsen said. "While legitimate fishing industry representatives wait months for appointments, a single vocal individual with wild accusations can get through the door within days. A group with a photocopier can generate a hundred letters of complaint.
"I learn about such meetings only when these individuals go back to their colleagues, or their fellow lobster zone council members, or, frankly, my own DMR staff, to draw from three known cases, to say that they got to the governor and he's going to fire the commissioner."
Olsen also implied that attempts to resolve the matter through communication failed, as he was not allowed access to the governor.
"Instead of backing me in our joint aims of managing Maine's marine resources for the benefit of the entire state," Olsen wrote, "the governor and his senior team cut me off. As a commissioner of the state of Maine, I had to wait six full weeks, from early May to late June, to get a meeting with the governor on time-critical issues of resource management worth tens of millions of dollars to the state."
Olsen's departure was confirmed by the administration, which issued a short statement thanking the outgoing commissioner for his service. Officials declined to elaborate, saying only that Olsen was not asked to leave and that his resignation was unexpected.
Olsen said he had been committed to the governor's agenda of creating more jobs, making agencies run better and prioritizing responsibilities for the limited resources available.
He was in the midst of a top-to-bottom departmental review, which he said "bred some discontent" among some DMR employees while other employees were glad to see the review of what he called a "partially dysfunctional" department.
But he said he couldn't continue on the job after being told it hinged on the results of a LePage staffer surveying people who had complained about him in secret.
"The governor said if the result is positive then he'll hold a joint press conference with me and announce his strong support for everything I'm doing and I'll be secure in the job," Olsen said. "And then (LePage's staffer) broke in and said if it's not, then you'll have to go. So my job depended on a telephone poll conducted by a single staffer, which I found a little bizarre."
Gary Libby, a shrimp, lobster and groundfisherman based in Port Clyde, said Wednesday the lobster industry had reacted coolly to Olsen's speech at the annual Fishermen's Forum held in March. During the speech, Olsen expressed a willingness to change the Maine law that prohibits groundfishermen from keeping and selling lobsters caught in their nets.
The lobster industry has fiercely opposed such a change, arguing that it would decimate the fishery.
According to Libby, lobstermen at the annual meeting erupted in anger after Olsen said he would consider changing the state's by-catch law.
"They jumped up and yelled at him and told him he was going to ruin the industry," Libby said. "They were heckling him. I don't know if that was the reason for his resignation, but that was what he was dealing with. It was pretty hostile, I thought."
Gerry Cushman, who also fishes out of Port Clyde, acknowledged that Olsen's stance on the groundfishing policy was unpopular with the industry. Cushman also said that some lobsterman had expressed their displeasure to the administration.
"Other than the groundfishing issue, I didn't have a huge problem with him," Cushman said.
The Maine Lobstermen's Association declined to discuss Olsen's resignation. The MLA instead issued a press release thanking LePage for standing with the industry.
"We are certain the governor's heart is with the industry and that his administration will ensure that the state is in the best position possible to keep our lobster fishery strong," the statement read.
Fisherman Libby was disappointed that Olsen was leaving.
"I thought he was a nice change," said Libby, adding that Olsen showed interest in reviving the groundfish industry and the Portland Fish Exchange.
Olsen was one of LePage's first Cabinet picks, having been appointed by the governor soon after his inauguration. Olsen was regarded as one of the most qualified commissioners in the Cabinet.
A Cape Elizabeth native, Olsen came to the administration as a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He later worked in a variety of national and international posts, including the New England Fishery Management Council and later as an associate coordinator for counter-terrorism for the U.S. State Department.
It appeared early on that Olsen and LePage were in sync on policy. The governor has expressed a desire to revitalize the seafood processing industry and long-term management of fisheries, goals that Olsen supported.
According to the the administration's statement, Olsen's resignation was effective immediately.
Patrick C. Keliher, who was previously acting deputy commissioner of Marine Resources, was sworn in as Olsen’s replacement and will serve in an acting capacity while the search opens for a new commissioner.
In his statement, Olsen expressed regret that he was not able to perform his duties. He also said he was concerned about the future of public resources and those who try to preserve them.
"I leave with regret for the people of Maine, who have allowed public resources to become the private domain of a select few, and especially for those other Mainers who have been prevented from earning a living," Olsen wrote.
"Finally, I regret leaving that portion of DMR employees who, in the face of their supervisors' and colleagues' intransigence and willful disregard of the state's greater interests, try their hardest to manage our state resources and enforce our laws for the benefit of all Mainers," he wrote. "To them, I give my heartfelt thanks and my best hopes for avoiding the retribution that they are even now facing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.