Global Matters: Life in the LePage administration imitates art

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During these especially sultry weeks of the short Maine summer, these weeks in which the mercury rises and we assure the tourists it isn’t usually so hot, during these weeks when patience frays and tempers flare, when politicians take the country to the brink, let us turn to the bible for solace.

Gov. Paul LePage has suggested we observe a day of prayer. I suggest we start by recalling the words of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1; Verse 9:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

It is perhaps a bit base to apply these sacred words to a context as seamy and temporal as local politics, but am I alone in thinking, as we observe another convulsion in the governor’s cabinet, that we’ve seen this movie before? That it’s deja vu all over again? That, as Ecclesiastes says, there’s nothing new under the sun?

I’m not just referring to the serial contretemps between the governor and his cabinet appointees. It is unusual to lose three commissioners within the first six months of an administration, but it’s not the departures per se that are cause for concern.

What is most unsettling is the lack of focus on the processes and intricacies of government itself.

True, it can be difficult to find qualified individuals willing to make the sacrifices necessary to serve, thus the appointment process can take time as candidates are vetted. But the statutory prohibition that precluded Darryl Brown from serving at the Department of Environmental Protection should have been evident early on.

And the governor’s appointment of Philip Congdon as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development was to many a mystery from the get-go, since Congdon had apparently expressed a disinclination to serve almost immediately upon his appointment.

And now, with the abrupt resignation of Norman Olsen from his post as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, one has to wonder whether the governor was ever fully aware of Olsen’s strong desire to shine a light on the lobster industry.

Olsen says that he shared with the governor his concern that the industry was harming the coastal economy with unjust restrictions on licensing and by-catch. Olsen insists that he had the governor’s support at least to consider the impact of these restrictions.

But Olsen may have misunderstood the governor; or he, too, may have been inadequately focused on the political process – organized opposition and the power of the photocopier can quickly ensnare the unwary in a trap from which there is no easy escape.

Indeed, the governor apparently learned before Olsen that you simply do not mess with the Maine lobster industry. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, the lobster industry is the “third tail” here in Maine.

All joking aside, the Olsen resignation underscores the disconnect between the governor’s administration and the process of, well, administration.

A disrespect for process resulted in the clandestine removal of the infamous mural from the walls of the Department of Labor, all because of a single anonymous fax.

Several of the governor’s appointees, not only at the Cabinet level but on a variety of commissions and elsewhere, have stepped down owing to conflicts, concerns over character and questionable behavior, much of which could have been considered prior to their appointments.

Now another failure to appreciate process has culminated in Olsen’s resignation; Olsen felt he had been subjected to “death by photocopier,” and the administration quickly sided with Team Xerox after only minimal inquiry.

Bottom line, there is a management aspect to successful governance that is in short supply; and without good management and respect for process, trouble inevitably ensues.

A stunning fresco adorns the walls of the City Hall in the picturesque Italian town of Siena. Painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the “Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government” depicts on one panel a society that functions well and in orderly fashion, where unreasonable impulses are suppressed in favor of the common good, and where urban and rural citizens alike prosper.

An opposing panel, however, depicts a society in decay, where evil impulses dominate, where favor and prejudice fill the vacuum left when process is ignored.

Painted in the 14th century, the “Allegory” remains relevant today.

Government cannot allow itself the luxury of impulse; the rules that we establish exist to ensure the smooth and fair functioning of society; the failure to respect process leads at worst to chaos and at best to lack of confidence in our institutions.

If Lorenzetti was suddenly to appear today, he would of course find the world a radically different, almost unimaginable place. But after a time, I suspect he would take a look around and find the issues we face remarkably similar to those he depicted long ago.

He might be inspired to paint a new fresco, or at least add another panel to the “Allegory.”

And he might well shake his head and call it, “There’s Nothing New Under the Sun.”

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council.

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