AUBURN — Jonathan LaBonte is going back to his roots.

Jonathan LaBonte, the former outspoken Auburn mayor, stands in the Sherwood Forest Conservation Area in Auburn on June 5. He will be the new executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The former three-term mayor of Auburn and member of the Gov. Paul LePage administration will return from a two-year break from the public eye to lead the Maine TREE Foundation, an environmental nonprofit.

LaBonte, who quietly resigned from his job in the LePage administration in 2018, had previously run the Androscoggin Land Trust and holds a chemical engineering degree from the University of Maine’s pulp and paper program.

He said last week that he’s looking forward to returning to those beginnings, stating, “It’s a chance to use some old networks as well as some skill sets I already had in the toolbox.”

Maine TREE, which stands for Timber Research and Environmental Education, owns and operates the Holt Research Forest in Arrowsic and is the state’s sponsor for Project Learning Tree, an environmental education program for students from prekindergarten through 12.

LaBonte said the Maine TREE Foundation was founded by members of the forest products industry, large landowners and educators who came together “to talk about ways the forest can come to life in the classroom, and ways research can be done to advance a greater understanding of the role of forests in Maine.”

Alexander Ingraham, president of the Maine TREE Foundation board, said, “We are delighted to welcome Jonathan on board at Maine TREE starting in mid-June. He brings a wealth of experience with nonprofits, community work, and passion to the role. We look forward to his leadership and helping him have a successful start at the foundation.”

For LaBonte, the position marks a return to a more public life after roughly two years away from high-profile positions. LaBonte served as mayor of Auburn from 2011-2017 and as director of former Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Policy and Management from 2014-2017.

LaBonte resigned from his statehouse position in April 2018, at the same time a number of other officials were leaving administration posts. He also abruptly left social media and dropped the majority of his involvement in Auburn government. He has remained on the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad Committee.

At the time, he told the Portland Press Herald that he canceled his social media accounts because he was trying to return to a more private life after spending six years in the public eye.

“I was burning out,” he said last week regarding his departure. “And I didn’t realize how much it had been affecting my health until I was on the other side of it and got unplugged for awhile.”

One month prior to his resignation, LaBonte received a notice of claim that he may be named in a possible civil suit filed against former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, who resigned in late 2018 amid allegations that he sexually harassed members of his department.

The notice of claim was filed under a state law that requires anyone who intends to sue a government entity to notify the government agency involved and name and notify any government employees who may be party to the suit. It does not mean that a suit will be filed, or that all of the people named in the notice would be sued if it were filed. It named more than a dozen other public officials and agencies, but no lawsuit has since been filed in Oxford County or in federal court.

Jonathan LaBonte, the former outspoken Auburn mayor, stands in the Sherwood Forest Conservation Area in Auburn on June 5, He will be the new executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When asked if the notice of claim had any bearing on his retreat from public life, LaBonte said it was purely coincidental, and that his statehouse position was on the cusp of being eliminated as a cost-saving measure.

“The (Office of Policy and Management) was ready to be dissolved and it was just time to unplug,” he said.

LaBonte used the time to settle down. He started a family with his wife, and the couple now have a 16-month-old son. He worked with a few outdoor retailers in sales, and overcame a health issue late last year.

LaBonte said the brief health scare caused him to seek out “more mission-based work.”

“Once I got a clean bill of health I thought, ‘All right, it’s time to get back at it,'” he said Friday.

He said he’d like the Maine TREE Foundation to explore opportunities for other communities to have their own small research forests, as well as conduct more outreach to students in southern Maine to make sure they are aware and can access the learning programs.

He said the research forest generally has four student interns, and that research forests essentially provide students with “outdoor research labs.”

According to a recent news release, Maine TREE is an independent, private nonprofit, and “the pre-eminent statewide leader in educating and advocating for the sustainable use of the forest and the ecological, economic, and social health of Maine’s forest community.”

LaBonte will begin the role on June 15, working on a transition with retiring Executive Director Henry Whittemore.

Whittemore said the search for his replacement attracted several well-qualified candidates.

“I am delighted to be able to hand over the leadership of the Maine TREE Foundation to Jonathan, and feel confident the organization will be in good hands,” he said. “I look forward to facilitating a smooth transition in any way I can and assisting Jonathan in getting to know Maine TREE’s staff, constituents, and core programs.”

When asked if he’s considered getting more involved in Auburn government again, LaBonte said he’s remained involved with the railroad committee and on issues relating to dam relicensing.

“Other than that, working a full-time job and helping my little guy grow, those are my priorities,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.