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When the Tough Get Going

October 16, 2014

I’ve written about Brian Jones before and I’m writing about him again today because I just read a profoundly moving statement of his that appeared in a local newspaper here in Maine.

Representative Brian Jones

Representative Brian Jones

Brian is a remarkable man in a lot of ways and I count myself fortunate to say he’s my friend. He’s an accomplished  teacher, the Representative from District 99 in our state legislature, a family man and, most importantly, a man who has the courage to do what’s right, even when things go wrong.

Brian lives in Freedom, Maine, and that’s quite poetic because Freedom is a place (not unlike the rest of Maine) where folks of good character often stumble but come up stronger for it.

He’s running for re-election this year and this letter, better than my words, explains why:

“In 2012, the voters of northern and western Waldo County honored me by electing me to represent them in the Maine Legislature. I’m running for re-election because I want to continue fighting for you and our community.

As many of you know, recent personal events have been a source of embarrassment and pain for my family, a catalyst for deep personal self-reflection, and very unfortunately, a cause for concern for many of my constituents. I’ve been forced to take a hard look at my life and my struggle with alcoholism.

I am fully committed to sobriety and have made the first, difficult steps, with the support of my family, friends and community. I am indeed very fortunate to be where I am. I’m grateful for the unexpected and overwhelming support of my constituents. I’m moved by your encouraging words, offers of help, and, most importantly, your belief in me. As a husband, father, and your representative, I understand the gravity of the decisions we make in life. Though introspection and recovery are typically private matters, I think it best to discuss my progress openly and honestly with you.

I hope you consider that I still am the outspoken advocate with a record of legislative success and a vision for prosperity for our community.

There is much to do in Augusta.

Waldo County needs meaningful economic development and opportunity, an economy that works for all of us. Deep poverty is prevalent, and not because of any lack of work ethic. Our neighbors get up in the morning and go to work, but it’s still hard to get by. Many of our sons and daughters must leave their hometowns to find work. To alleviate poverty, we must make sure our workers are paid a living wage. In the world’s wealthiest nation, no one should work full-time and still be unable to support his or her family’s basic needs. We must recognize the dignity of the individual’s labor. We’ve only recovered 63 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, and more than 40,000 Mainers want, but can’t find, full-time work. This is unacceptable and I’ll work to change that.

Small businesses are the backbone of Maine’s economy, and Waldo County leads in the number of micro-businesses. We must support our entrepreneurs, make the most of strengths, like our family farms, and understand that a healthy economy relies on a clean environment.

And we must hold Augusta accountable. The state has not lived up to its promises to our communities. Quality education is key to economic growth, yet the state fails to fund public education at 55 percent as mandated by the people of Maine. The state also fails to provide fair revenue sharing. These failures merely shift the tax burden to property owners. The property tax is the nastiest of all, unfairly affecting those least able to pay it and land-intensive enterprises like farming. It is most unfair to our senior citizens living on fixed incomes. To add insult to injury, the state has cut the Circuit Breaker program, which provided property tax relief to our poorest neighbors.

I’ve broken with my party to stand against state budgets that fail to meet commitments to our schools, our towns and our poorest neighbors. I will continue to demand the state pays its fair share.

I have talked to thousands of you over the past two years and these are the concerns you tell me about. I have been your voice in Augusta, whether it is about broad issues like the economy or helping you navigate the labyrinth of state government. I’ve been a strong advocate for our small businesses, introducing legislation to reduce unfair regulations, and I’ve worked to remove onerous regulatory barriers for our farmers. I’ve consistently advocated policies that would provide health care for all of our neighbors and I’ve been a consistent champion for the middle class and those less fortunate than we are.

I humbly ask for your continued support as I work for your best interests in Augusta. With your support in November, I can continue this work. Thank you for the trust you’ve placed in me; I will work hard to continue to deserve it.”

Thank you, Brian, for being the man you are and the kind of legislator Maine needs.

Violets of Dawn – Waking Up to Paul LePage

February 8, 2014

Sometimes we’re lulled to sleep by reassuring promises of better things to come.

Morning In Maine

Morning In Maine

A smaller, more “people friendly” government is wonderfully appealing and so is the soft suggestion that meticulous restraint in spending can provide better public services and improve quality at the same time.

But while speaking these words may soothe a troubled mind, in the dim light of dawn here in Maine specters have begun to appear.

When Republican Paul LePage assumed the governorship in 2010, he immediately replaced the head of the largest, most significant state department (Health and Human Services) with an individual having no experience in public health administration, personnel management or budgetary finance.

Yet his pick for the commissioner’s seat, Mary Mayhew, was a Democrat. Nevertheless, she’d received praise for essentially one thing: she had been a tenacious lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, advocating with great success against government restraints on private hospitals.

Upon her appointment, there were some who were quizzical about her qualifications. She’d never managed people and now 1,300 staffers were under her direction. She had no budgeting experience and yet was now responsible for the largest spending component of the State government. Her track record as a lobbyist was characterized by fighting against restraints on medical charges.

It was perplexing, but with hindsight, recall that Dr. Erik Steele (then chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems) provided some insight into the governor’s selection motivation by observing that Mayhew was “a smart, friendly pit bull shoved into a size 4 dress.”

What ensued was a finely crafted and precisely coordinated reordering of the top staffing positions at DHHS followed by sweeping, across the board cuts in spending and a virtual freeze on hiring or even advertising for vacant positions.

Program heads were ordered to find specifically quantified but unqualified dollar savings – over and over again. Communication avenues between supervisors and their directors became narrow, one-way streets and correspondence between those supervisors and their staffers was guarded and overseen from the top. An open spirit of service and cooperation was replaced by one of apprehension. The jobs that talented health professionals had been hired to do became secondary to the constant pressure to find ways to spend less while doing the least harm.

It’s that last part that woke some people with a start: Do the least harm? “What about the department’s mission statement?” a few wondered. “This just isn’t right,” they whispered to themselves in the dawning hours.

Suddenly, one day last winter, Sharon Leahy-Lind, director of the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Local Public Health, didn’t show up at work. None of her staff seemed to know where she was. No one had heard from her, but the word that spread around the coffee room was that she was “on a leave.” Others thought differently.

As it turns out, what had happened was that Sharon Leahy-Lind had pushed back against some very formidable pit-bull types concerning an allocation of money made by the CDC under what she has been alleging was a rigged award process. She’d refused to comply with instructions she’d been given by her DHHS supervisors to destroy the supporting documentation of the scheme.

She became a “whistle-blower” and offered up as proof of her assertion the existence of a spreadsheet showing the history of the scoring by the CDC of twenty-seven potential recipients of funding for a program called “Healthy Maine Partnerships.” Ms. Leahy-Lind claims that the scoring had been deliberately altered to disadvantage one of the programs. When that document was formally requested, department officials claimed that it had been destroyed because “it was only a working document.”

The most problematic aspect of this episode (aside from the claim of illegally destroying documents and the allegations of the personal abuse of Ms. Leahy-Lind by her supervisors) is that the particular group whose funding was allegedly quashed by numbers manipulation is one that serves among the largest number of Maine’s neediest healthcare recipients within the considered entities.

It appears to some observers at the CDC that the alleged decision to “cook the books” had nothing to do with saving money, but was designed to shift money and in doing so, to cripple a region providing the greatest services and thereby downsize and discredit the entire program.

It seems to me that the shades of night are slowly, almost painfully being raised on what could be the most shameful saga of government misfeasance in Maine’s history.

Not the work of a single thief stealing for personal gain. Not a failure of an incompetent to properly discharge the proper duties of public office. This may be a nightmare of the calculated destruction of the public trust populated by a cast of characters, each of whom was following orders which were arguably well intended: Save money – at any cost. Reduce the size of government regardless of the consequences.

In the meantime, as the drama slowly unfolds, I rub my sleepy eyes to try to see things clearly. I begin to understand the impact that the past three years of the LePage administration have had. Hundreds of jobs are intentionally going unfilled and unadvertised. Valuable programs in development are being scrapped or being short-funded and understaffed.

I was told that last week one of the supervisors Sharon Leahy-Lind places at the center of her personal nightmare was re-titled something like “Strategic Director of Reorganization.”

It has a slightly militaristic ring to it, I think, evoking images of bombs bursting mid-air.

Perhaps I’m dreaming. Perhaps not. It’s hard to tell.

“There’s magic in the sleepiness of waking to a childish sounding yawn
Come watch the no colors fade blazing
Into pedal sprays of Violets of Dawn.” -Eric Andersen

[NB - This article has previously been submitted to DirigoBlue , a blog containing a vast array of social and political commentary from and about Maine.]

Perfectly Legal

November 3, 2013

It was a great job. It began like this:MortgageTrap

“Hi.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

 “Here’s your first project, a new program called The American Dream Loan. The Board will be announcing it tomorrow and they want you guys to make sure to set it up so that it’s perfectly legal.”

 

It ended like this, many years later.

“Hi.”

 “Hey, what’s up?”

“Things haven’t gone so well recently and the Board has decided that we have to make some hard decisions. I’m really sorry, but that means eliminating a lot of key positions.

You’ll get a nice severance package. You’ll be just fine. Trust me. I tried to save your spot. It’s just business. You’ve done a great job for us.

Come on, I’ll walk out with you. Security, you know. We’ll pack up all your stuff and send to around to your house, but leave your key card, your laptop and your cell phone on your desk.

Oh yeah, before we go, pull out all the Dream files, I’ll need them today.”

As it turns out, it all was all perfectly legal because (strictly speaking) that’s about how you do something not why you want to do it.

Making money isn’t a crime.

“Goodbye,” said the Fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; that which is essential is invisible to the eye.”

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Freshman

July 18, 2013
Representative Brian Jones

Representative Brian Jones

There’s a collegiate song that begins something like this:

“Oh, the freshman down at Yale get no tail …”

And while the lyrics are a bit racy, they seem to fit the current political climate here in Maine.

Recently, after Governor Paul LePage sounded off on a state legislator who had the temerity to confront him because of the state budget the Governor had proposed. The legislature had passed an alternative budget.  The Governor then made national headlines with his intemperate remarks and  summarily vetoed it.

The stage was now set for a classic confrontation and the legislature voted overwhelmingly to override his veto.

In that process, both seasoned professionals and first-term legislators were called upon to cast their vote and, undoubtedly, each faced enormous pressures. There was pressure from the Governor’s office, pressure from party loyalists and pressure from constituents. Most voted quietly and predictably.

But one new member of the House of Representatives, in particular, is worthy of attention because his vote against the override isn’t easily understood unless you happened to hear what he said in this floor speech.

When comments in opposition to the veto override in the House of Representatives were called for, several staunch Republicans gave impassioned speeches about supporting their Governor.

Then, unexpectedly, Brian Jones, a first-term Democrat from Freedom, ME, rose to the floor of the People’s House and calmly explained that the bipartisan compromise budget which the legislature had sent to the Governor was “dog lunch,” and that the people he represented deserved better.

He was voting, “No.”

Heads spun in disbelief. “Hold on,” someone muttered, “He’s a Dem. Isn’t he supposed to be speaking in favor of the override?”

When the voting was complete, there were plenty of Reps whose votes were seemingly inconsistent with their party affiliation, but to the trained eye, few were as surprising as Representative Jones’.

Jones had steadfastly advocated for the budget his Democratic Party had put forth in response to the Governor’s proposed budget. It had included tying it to a proposal that would have assured the payment of a huge debt owed by the State to Maine hospitals. In order to gain the support for their budget changes, the Democrats agreed to compromise their plan and to sever the hospital repayment plan from the budget. The plan backfired. The Governor vetoed the budget.

Brian Jones surprised everybody that day when (as a Democrat) he rose to announce his position for voting NO amid Republican counterparts urging support for LePage.

Representative Jones’ vote didn’t get much media attention and it won’t be remembered for long; but what he did was a courageous act that distinguishes him among the first-termers in our legislature: he stood up amid the jaded upper-classmen and articulated a principled position that nobody saw coming.

Whether his party thought of it as a stunt or naïve enthusiasm is irrelevant.

Brian Jones passed his finals this year with flying colors.

“For a freshman in Augusta to be sure that he’ll pass mustah,
He must focus on ideals and not his tail.”

The Gorilla In The Room

April 25, 2013

Human perception isn’t just seeing or hearing. What we expect to see or hear frequently blinds us to what’s really going on.

What's Going On Here?

What’s Going On Here?

In Old Orchard Beach, Maine last week, a nasty event was reported to the police. A man arrived at the police station to complain that he’d been insulted by a woman (a town councilor) casting a racial slur his way and while the police found no basis for a criminal complaint, word spread quickly through the town and local media. The accused councilor has been publicly shamed and denounced as a racist both in the media and in a televised Town Council meeting.

To be fair, the man’s story was corroborated by one woman in town who, it turns out, was responsible for bringing him from Auburn (60 miles away) to circulate petitions for the recall of three of our town councilors. The woman accused of using the slur was one of those three councilors.

The woman who brought the petition circulator to town is also the head of the committee formed to circulate those petitions.

Although the gentleman was not legally authorized to circulate petitions (he is not a registered voter in nor a resident of our town) and notwithstanding that he wore an entirely fabricated photo-ID badge around his neck identifying himself as “State Petitioner Grace D – Authorized State Signature Collector” (our State does not offer or authorize anyone to be a “State Petitioner”) – that was the subject of a earlier piece I wrote and those are side issues here.

Here’s my point for today: A very serious and damaging accusation was made by this man and backed up by the testimony of the woman who was admittedly responsible for his being there.  Each insists they heard what they heard. Others sharply dispute it.

Perhaps the allegations are true, but perhaps they not. And if not, those who repeat and embellish the tale are guilty of something even more profoundly offensive. Sometime we see exactly what we’re looking for and miss more important stuff.

Here’s a test. Even if you’ve heard of this test, watch anyway and see how well are your perceptions working:

Click here to see how well you do.

Gunfight at the OOB Corral

April 22, 2013

Early on the morning of April 10, 2013, I had my first experience with a “State Petitioner.” I never knew such an outlaw existed.

As I went to mail a postcard to my daughter, in front of the U.S. Post Office in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was confronted by a large affable man carrying a loaded clipboard and a placard around his neck that read “State Petitioner – Grace D.”

"Have Petition - WIll Travel"

“Have Petition – WIll Travel”

I was impressed.

He stepped in front of me and asked whether I’d sign his petition.

“Petition for what?” I inquired sheepishly.

“To recall the three town councilors,” he replied.

“Oh,” I said. “Which three?”

“Dayton, Coleman and Quinn,” he shot back.

“But I like them,” I said, somewhat defensively.

“That’s OK,” he parried. “You can sign this … it’s only to get the question on the ballot.”

So I backed down.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I whimpered and turned around to beat a hasty retreat.

Nobody else was around, thankfully, to witness my cowardice. Two or three other citizens of OOB had already succumbed to his advances and signed his petitions but (fortunately) nobody else had been present to observe this shameful lack of political conviction on my part.

Several days later I learned that “Grace D” was a hired gun. An out of town political sharp-shooter who had been drawn into this fight because he was a professional – not a believer in a cause, but a battle hardened petition-slinger who was there to do a dirty job: get signatures.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with citizens advocating for a political cause. I do it all the time. But here’s the rub:

I later discovered that “Grace D” was actually Dennis Graise – a resident of Auburn, ME (some 50 miles away) who was neither a resident of my town, nor enrolled as a voter in OOB (both of which qualifications are required to circulate petitions for local recall initiatives) and that he has had a history of controversial engagements in the Maine political process in the recent past.

Today I called the Maine Secretary of State’s office and discovered that there is no such thing as a “State Petitioner.” Our state neither requires nor authorizes anyone to have credentials to collect petition signatures.

This man was, simply put, a fraud. And that’s wrong. His credentials were bogus, he didn’t have the qualifications to collect signatures in our town and he even misrepresented his name.

Where are the Earp brother’s when you need them?

When Elected Officials Fail

April 6, 2013
DSC_0015

OOB Taxpayers for “Truth” seek to recall 3 Town Councilors who demanded to know why our Town Manager was fired.

Old Orchard Beach is a small costal town in Southern Maine and it’s being battered this winter by a political storm.

At the heart of it is a central question: How is “truth” determined, by fiat or by rational participatory inquiry?

We have a Town Manager form of government, which means that a qualified individual is hired and charged with operating the business of our Town. We also have an elected Town Council whose job it is to take care of the legislative and financial part of municipal government. These separate functions are supposed to remove the management function from the legislative function and assure smooth sailing.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Last fall, we had an election in which our Town Council was expanded from five members to seven. Four former members were re-elected and three new members joined the Council. Following the election, a single councilor from the old board and the three new members instantly closed ranks in opposition to the Town Manager.

The so-called “Gang of Four” lost no time in confronting the Town Manager with an ultimatum: Resign or be fired.

Many of us thought it odd that such a decree could be issued without even a meeting of the Council to discuss the reasons behind it and said so at a public meeting at the Town Hall in December of last year. Some wondered how the Council Chair could make such a demand, under the color of governmental authority, without there ever having been such a meeting. Isn’t that a violation of the Federal Civil Rights Act?  The questions feel upon deaf ears.

Since then, despite the Town Manager exercising his right to demand a public hearing on any allegations about his job performance; despite cries of “foul” from the public; and despite the repeated efforts of the three remaining Council members to air any complaints in public, the Gang of Four stone-walled every attempt to inform the citizens of our Town of the reasons they want the Town Manager out of their way.

What’s remarkable about this situation is that there have now been recall petitions circulated to remove the Gang of Four and (in quick response) a group called “Taxpayers for Truth” was formed to call for the recall of the three other Council members who, together with the Town Manager and his counsel, John Richardson (a distinguished lawyer and former Speaker of the Mine House of Representatives) were demanding a public forum to air any complaints citing the Manager’s right to address charges under both our Town Charter and Maine law.

Last month, rather than acknowledging the publics right to know, the Town Manager’s rights to due process and their own obligation to comply with Federal, State and local law, the Gang of Four voted in-block to terminate the Town Manager “for no cause.”

Politics is a dirty business. It always has been and it always will be.

Truth is an admirable goal, but it will never be found in naked accusations.

The foundation of justice is the right to be heard; the right to confront accusers and the availability of a forum in which competing sides can have their versions of the truth weighed impartially.

When elected officials conspire to remove the rationale of their actions from public view, democracy (be it on a national, state or municipal level) is in serious trouble.

So, my Town has sent yet another Town Manager packing. Honestly, I don’t know whether he was doing his job properly or not.

And that’s exactly the problem.

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