Cleaning house

Board overhaul
By AL DIAMON  |  September 16, 2010

Maine’s government contains more than 300 boards and commissions — ranging from the influential, such as the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) and the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), to the obscure, such as one that oversees landscape architects and another that makes sure cosmetologists don’t spread cooties.

The governor is responsible for appointing about 2000 people to serve on these boards. Those citizens willing to endure endless, dull meetings are rewarded by being allowed to impose rules designed to annoy their fellow Mainers (which is why landscape architects are forbidden from trimming hair and cosmetologists can’t touch up hedges).

Nevertheless, public-spirited volunteers do step forward. After careful vetting by the governor’s staff (applicantis not currently detained by the Department of Homeland Security for possible involvement in the Times Square bombing attempt), their names are submitted to legislative committees for consideration, then to the state Senate for confirmation. After which, they’re generally forgotten.

The next governor — whether Republican, Democrat, or independent — will have an opportunity to reshape much of state government through these appointments. For instance, between January 2011 (when our new chief executive will be inaugurated) and January 2014 (when he or she will be run out of town), the guv will appoint or reappoint 17 District Court judges, 10 Superior Court justices, and four members of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Traditionally, sitting judges have had to make complete idiots of themselves to fail to win reappointment to another seven-year term. But GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage has promised to shake up state government at all levels. It remains to be seen if he’ll abide by precedent or replace some judges with his Tea Party pals.

Independent Blaine House hopeful Eliot Cutler has pledged to abolish the Board of Environmental Protection. Not likely. The BEP has powerful allies in the Legislature, and even its enemies worry that Cutler’s plan to create a special environmental court will be too costly. But Cutler could still have a major impact on the way the board does business. The terms of all 10 members expire in the next four years, allowing him to restock the panel with appointees more amenable to rubber-stamping large development projects in eco-sensitive areas.

By 2013, the governor will get to fill three seats on the eight-member Maine Public Employees Retirement System board. The system is facing a shortfall of billions of dollars in the near future, a major concern to state workers worried about their pensions. If Democrat Libby Mitchell wins in November, it will be because she received overwhelming backing from those same workers. That should give that particular special-interest group major influence over her choice of trustees, not to mention her decision on raising taxes to cover the deficit.

Members of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees serve for five years, so a couple of them won’t face the wrath of a new governor in his or her first term. But a dozen slots will be up for gubernatorial scrutiny between now and 2014, enough to fundamentally redefine the group.

That change could have implications well beyond the campuses. While the guv only gets to name two members of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s board, the UMS trustees appoint, either directly or indirectly, a majority of the overseers of the state’s public radio and television stations. LePage has already claimed a public-radio report distorted some of his wacky comments. Nothing like a board-ordered purge of liberal staffers to correct that problem.

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