SOUTH PORTLAND — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday pushed back against allegations he would not work with the city of Portland for political reasons.
Instead, LePage, a Republican, said he would “love” to work with the city that overwhelmingly voted for his Democratic and independent challengers last November.
LePage also said he could support legislation that would allow ground fisherman to sell lobster by-catch in Maine.
Complaints from lobstermen who oppose the sale of by-catch reportedly contributed last week to the resignation of the Department of Marine Resources commissioner, who said LePage acquiesced to the lobstermen.
Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said he will meet with LePage on Thursday to discuss allegations made by the former commissioner, Norman Olsen, who said LePage told him he would not work with Portland because the city was “against” the governor.
LePage was in South Portland on Monday to mark the expansion of Casco Bay Steel Structures. The event was designed to promote LePage’s campaign that the state is “open for business.”
After the event, LePage was questioned about comments made last week by Olsen when he abruptly resigned as DMR commissioner.
“It is not true,” LePage said of Olsen’s claim about Portland.
Olsen accused the governor of “pacifying special interest groups,” apparently a reference to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“I leave with regret for the people of Maine, who have allowed public resources to become the private domain of a select few, and especially for those other Mainers who have been prevented from earning a living,” Olsen said.
Olsen acknowledged his initiatives angered lobstermen at the annual Maine Fisherman’s Forum in March. Those initiatives include removing regulations, he said, that encourage fisherman to land their catches out of state.
One of those regulations deals with lobster by-catch, or lobsters that are dragged up in ground fishing nets. Ground fishermen cannot sell their lobster by-catch in Maine, but they can in Massachusetts.
That has forced some Maine fisherman to sell their lobsters out of state, along with their fish – haddock, cod, pollock, hake and flounder.
The exodus has led to hard times at the Portland Fish Exchange, a quasi-municipal nonprofit auction house on the Portland waterfront. The group has long pushed for the state to allow lobster by-catch as a way to keep boats in Maine.
Olsen, in a letter explaining his resignation, said the governor has no interest in working with the city of Portland on such initiatives.
“Portland was against him, he said, and we will not work with that city,” Olsen said. “Rather than work with Portland, he said, we’ll build a new port somewhere.”
LePage on Monday dismissed Olsen’s account, attributing it to a “failure to communicate.”
“It is not true,” LePage said. “It is absolutely, unequivocally fabricated.”
LePage also pushed back against Olsen’s assertion that the commissioner had to wait months to get a meeting with the governor.
“We looked at our calendar,” LePage said. “We met 10 times in the last two months.”
Olsen, however, stood his ground when told of LePage’s remarks. He said in an email that LePage is counting general meetings, which are time-limited and agenda-driven.
Olsen said he waited months for a private meeting with LePage to talk about other substantive issues.
“With specific regard to Portland, the governor could not have been clearer,” Olsen said Monday. “My original statement stands.”
Soon after Olsen’s comments were published, Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones sent a letter to the governor, asking to meet with him and Patrick Keliher, who was appointed acting DMR commissioner on July 21.
“Statements implying that the governor’s office ‘will not work’ with Portland, true or not, are harmful to the business climate both locally and statewide,” Mavodones said.
Mavodones said Monday he planned to meet with LePage and Keliher on Thursday at 3 p.m. in Augusta.
In addition to the meeting, the mayor’s letter asked LePage to publicly address Olsen’s allegations.
“I trust you understand that regardless of the veracity of these statements, the public and the city of Portland need to be reassured that economic development in all Maine communities, both large and small, are a priority for the governor’s office,” Mavodones said.
In a press release announcing the Keliher’s appointment, the governor’s office said LePage is committed to Maine’s ground-fishing fleet.
When asked on Monday whether he would be open to by-catch legislation that would keep ground fisherman in Portland, LePage replied, “Absolutely.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in an email she believes the governor is equally committed to lobstermen’s concerns about allowing by-catch.
“The MLA has met with the (Gov.) LePage on this issue and is confident that he understands the lobster industry’s concerns regarding landing dragger caught lobster in Maine,” McCarron said.
Mavodones seemed surprised when told of LePage’s willingness to change Maine’s by-catch ban, but noted he hoped to speak with LePage about working with Portland in general, rather than only focusing on the maritime issues.
Bert Jungerden, director of the Portland Fish Exchange, said he supported the mayor’s outreach to the governor.
Jungerden noted that a new rebate program on fuel taxes will not go into effect until September. The $30,000 fund, which will rebate the 5 percent diesel tax Maine charges but Massachusetts doesn’t, is designed to keep ground fishermen local.
But Jungerden was cautious when asked to comment about LePage’s willingness to consider other measures, such as new lobster by-catch legislation.
“We’ll see,” he said. “If (LePage) is interested in going down that road, then I think we’d all be very interested in seeing it happen.”
This story was updated to include a comment from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, in South Portland on Monday, said he “absolutely” would support legislation aimed at legalizing the sale of lobsters caught by ground fishermen.