Administration: Ex-DMR chief angered constituents; Olsen says LePage buckled

AUGUSTA — Norman Olsen's opponents began mobilizing in mid-March, days after the now-resigned commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources verbally charged into one of the most sensitive debates in the state's fishing industry.

Norman Olsen
Robert F. Bukaty

FILE - In this January 2011 file photo, Norman Olsen speaks at a news conference after being introduced as the nominee for commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The Commissioner announced his resignation on Wednesday, July 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Olsen, a former fisherman and lobsterman, told attendees at the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockland that groundfishermen should be allowed to keep and sell lobsters accidentally caught in their nets. The practice, known as by-catch, is not allowed in Maine.

Lobstermen, who view by-catch as a mortal threat to their fishery, were livid.

Within days, the industry, led primarily by lobstermen from mid-coast and Down East regions, waged an aggressive pre-emptive mailing campaign against changing the law. The cross-hairs soon moved to Olsen. The DMR chief had proposed no legislation, yet he remained undaunted in expressing public support for by-catch and other controversial regulatory changes, such as transferable licenses. 

Olsen abruptly resigned his post Wednesday after a morning meeting with Gov. Paul LePage. Olsen, 60, a former foreign diplomat, walked into the meeting with a one-sentence, handwritten letter, which he gave to the governor after being told that he had to win over disgruntled constituents.

Olsen called the mandate "mission impossible."

The resulting firestorm hit its apex Wednesday night when Olsen released a 1,689-word broadside against the administration.

The resignation is now political. Armed with the administration's previous missteps in Cabinet appointments and other controversies, the governor's opponents have begun parsing Olsen's myriad accusations.

At this point, the full picture is held captive by the fact-twisting purgatory of he-said, he-said. While the administration on Thursday said it was reluctant to participate, it handed over documents that it believes show how Olsen had riled various constituents.

A spokesman for LePage generally dismissed Olsen's accusations.

"Obviously, when something like this happens, people get upset," said Adam Fisher, LePage's spokesman.

He added, "There's no smoking gun here. There's nothing unethical, nothing illegal. Again, the governor and Mr. Olsen were aligned on policy. There was just a difference in style."

But according to Olsen, there was also a difference in willpower. He accused LePage of caving to the demands of the lobster industry at the expense of the groundfish industry, which the governor had previously vowed to help.

"Regrettably, while I have maintained my commitments, the governor’s office has not maintained its resolve," Olsen wrote.

It was not clear Thursday whether the letter-writing campaign would signal a shift in the administration's policy to assist the groundfishing industry, or if it demonstrated for the first-time governor the complexity and sensitivity of the by-catch issue.

But there's little doubt that industry pressure played into the administration's split with Olsen.

It began five months ago. When it was over, the industry had submitted to the Governor's Office a pair of form letters signed by more than 145 licensed lobstermen.

The second form letter was a tear-out from the Downeast Lobstermen's Association March newsletter.

The majority of the signatures appeared on the first letter, which took issue with Olsen's "frustrating and dismaying" comments at the forum, including the by-catch policy and the commissioner's support of transferable lobstering licenses.

Mid-coast and Down East lobstermen fear the latter could price them out of the business.

Nick Lemieux was among the letter-writers. Lemieux serves on DMR's Lobster Advisory Council and is vice president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association.

Lemieux was also on the governor's transition team to review DMR commissioners. He supported Olsen, as did the rest of the search committee.

"We all thought he was a good choice," Lemieux said.

He said he began to change his mind when Olsen started pushing the by-catch issue.

"(By-catch) was only in the talking stage," Lemieux said. "But even the fact that he was talking about it worried me and a lot of other Down East lobstermen."

Groundfishermen, whom Olsen had repeatedly vowed to help prior to his appointment at DMR, have said the by-catch ban is preventing the industry from staging a comeback. They argue that groundfish boats that once docked in Portland Harbor have migrated to Massachusetts, where fishermen are allowed to land and sell a quota of lobsters.

Lobstermen counter that their fishery should not be sacrificed to save an industry that nearly fished its resource into oblivion by forsaking conservation efforts.

The debate came into full bloom in 2007 when a Portland lawmaker attempted to change the by-catch law. The measure was defeated. 

But Olsen was convinced that restoring the industry could be done effectively and that the benefits would spur job creation on and offshore. Part of the equation, he told constituents, was by-catch, which would bring ground boats back to Portland and Port Clyde.

As Olsen repeated this belief at constituent meetings, the letters continued to pour into the Governor's Office.

On April 28, LePage sent a stack of letters to Olsen with a handwritten note.

"This letter came to me from concerned fishermen," the governor wrote to Olsen. "Would you review the three concerns and provide with talking points so that I may review their concerns from the administration's standpoint."

LePage invited Olsen to discuss the matter in person.

It's unclear whether that meeting took place. However, by then the governor's staff had confronted Olsen with the letters and with an April 5 complaint about his communication style from a group representing the seaweed harvesting industry.

The administration said the letter showed Olsen had turned off more than one constituency.

Around that time, Olsen said, he was "put on notice" by LePage's staff and denied meetings with the governor.

He claimed LePage and his senior staff had repeatedly given "private audiences to groups and individuals objecting to my open discussion of the issues."

The lobster industry pressed forward.

On June 8, the administration received a letter from the Downeast Lobstermen's Association. The group said the commissioner was pushing an agenda that would lead to a "disaster."

On June 1, LePage himself worried in another handwritten note that Olsen was "moving too fast" on certain initiatives. 

Olsen, meanwhile, thought the governor had abandoned him. He said he never would have taken the post if he and LePage were not aligned on policy.

In his statement, the outgoing commissioner indicated that he knew his policy would face opposition from the powerful lobster industry. The governor, he wrote, apparently didn't.

He wrote, "I still find it amazing that a tiny faction of industry members seeking to protect their state-granted monopolies over a public resource — perhaps a hundred and fifty out of some 12,000 marine resource license holders — and signing pre-printed letters, can trounce a supposedly iron-willed governor. But, clearly, they have done so."

smistler@sunjournal.com

LePage administration departures

Norman Olsen's resignation as chief of the Maine Department of Marine Resources marks the fourth senior staff or Cabinet change in the LePage administration since the governor took office in January.

In April, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Phil Congdon was forced to resign after making controversial comments during a tour of Aroostook County.

Congdon's resignation was paired with the reassignment of Department of Environmental Protection head Darryl Brown. Brown was moved to the State Planning Office after his DEP post was found to violate a conflict of interest provision of the Clean Water Act.

Also in April, Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, resigned after it was made public that he was facing foreclosure on five properties.

Olsen's resignation letter
Olsen

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Comments

 's picture

"Bycatch" was an issue that

"Bycatch" was an issue that was fully vetted years ago, and it was extremely contentious, and went on and on and on. The lobsterman's argument was that "dragged" lobster is inferior, and if sold, would diminish the quality of the overall product. The commisioner was a little out of line with speaking to a settled issue in a public forum. So, now we have a single line resignation,transformed to a 1600 word dissertation, revealed publicly? Is there a little ego here? Of course this serves as a platform for more LaPage bashing.

Sewell Colby's picture

By-catch

I would ask, what condition is the by-catch in when it is brought aboard in the nets? If it is undamaged, return it to the water. If it is dead or will die when returned to the water, in my view, it would be better to use it and regulate sustainability another way.

 's picture

As the embarressments mount

LePage began as a national laughingstock now he's just a boring bully.
What must he think of Governor Perry withdrawal from his own Day of Prayer and Fasting. Governor LePage is the only other Governor who has accepted Gov. Perry's invitation to support his proclamation. Now Perry is backing off.
Why! Because Perry recruited the American Family Association, an anti-gay hate group, to organize the meeting and recruit a long list of far right "christian"? ministers like The Dobson Twins, David Barton, creator of WallBuilders and false Jefferson quotes and Michelle Backman's recent gaffe that President John Quincy Adams was "active" in the Revolutionary War (Barton's version is that John Quincy Adams "fought" in the Revolutionary War. That's important to him because a speech of John Quicy Adams is the only evidence of Barton's theory that America was founded as a Christian Nation. If Adams wasn't a founder, his theory is false. By the way the facts are John Quincy Adams was in Europe going to school from 1778-1782. He left at age ten. He had no role and did not fight in the Revolutionary War.)
All of this must be embarrassing to Gov. LePage. Adding on the turmoil in the cabinent, you might think LePage is a bad politician on top of being a bad manager.

 's picture

Typical

This is a typical LePage response. Rather than take an honest look at the events, he will go to work placing the blame.
When will our governor finally realize he was elected to be in charge and be responsible for what happens in the state rather than just laying off the blame like he did at Mardens.
The citizens and employees of Maine are not cashiers at Mardens and should not be teated as if everything that happens is our fault. It's evident that the LePage administration is disfunctional, department head after department head leaves, gets fired, gets arrested,,,,,,,

Mark Elliott's picture

Olsen is merely a disgruntled

Olsen is merely a disgruntled employee! He pissed off a group of Mainers and when told to "fix it", said it was impossible. You can't undo almost 40 years of liberal over regulation by thinking the job is "impossible"...when you have an employee that feels his job is impossible, then you replace him.....unless of course he quits beforehand.........

 's picture

Re:

What planet are you on again? When an employee is disgruntled you listen to why; you do not fire him automatically. Looking for cause and solutions are you in the private sector? Do you engage in hiring, firing, training, and other aspects of the "job" environment? Listen impossible or not how you work it is just as important as keeping loyalty in the staff. You can state liberal so easily and blame Olsen but in reality having no real working knowledge of various sales industries wouldn't it be better just to summarize what you offer is a dry hole from marketing?

Mark Elliott's picture

Spin.......

Joseph, first off, You have to excuse me for taking so long to respond as I was out SELLING in the hot sun to make money so I can pay my fair share of taxes.

Second, I did NOT say he WAS disgruntled, I said he IS disgruntled, meaning "in the present". He is NOW disgruntled. He didn't elaborate in his resignation letter why he was resigning, but he is singing like a songbird to the media now.

Third, I made absolutely NO mention of "liberal", "lib",or even "conservative" for that matter....you did!

Fourth, whether or not I have a "working knowledge" of various sales industries has absolutely nothing to do with this situation.

Fifth, companies let people go EVERY day if their ideology doesn't fit that of the company's mission.....it happens all the time, in the real world that is. Olsen and the administration were simply not a good match.

Last but not least, if your going to try to spin someone's words, you may want to make sure his original words aren't right there for all to read.

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