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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.]

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