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Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Resigns
07/20/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's commissioner of marine resources resigned unexpectedly today after a series of disagreements with members of the fishing industry. Norm Olsen said he resigned after Gov. Paul LePage gave him a Labor Day deadline to answer his critics. Olsen said the governor would not tell him who the critics were or the nature of their complaints, and Olsen said that under those circumstances, he was left with no option other than to resign.

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Left to right, Norm Olsen with Gov. Paul LePage in January, and former Maine Environmental Commissioner Darryl Brown and former Economic and Community Development Commissioner Philip Congdon, who have also since resigned.

Read Norm Olsen's statement on his resignation.

After his first appearance at the Fishermen's Forum as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, Norm Olsen says he was under no illusions about the level of rancor within Maine's commercial fishing industry. But in trying to strike a balance between implementing regulations and appeasing fishermen Olsen thought that he would have the support of the governor who nominated him.

He says what he didn't know was that members of the fishing industry were meeting privately with Gov. Paul LePage, complaining that Olsen wasn't listening to them. He asked LePage what he expected him to do about it.

"And the basic answer was that I had until Labor Day to turn around my poll numbers, at which point a senior staffer would call around to members of industry and ask the question: 'Is Commissioner Olsen now listening to you?' And if the answer was 'no,' I'd be dismissed, and if it was 'yes,' then the governor would come out with a press conference and support me," Olsen says.

Olsen says LePage never told him who the critics were or what their concerns were. But he has his suspicions from encounters with some fishermen over regulatory issues.

As commissioner, Olsen's call for prudent and rational fishery regulation didn't always sit well with fishermen. Olsen was particularly critical of the limited entry program for fishermen that he says results in an average wait of nearly 11 years before an apprentice can obtain his license. Olsen says that when he didn't agree with the fishermen, it was reported back to the governor that he "just wasn't listening."

Meanwhile, these skirmishes were playing out against a top down external audit of the Department of Marine Resources that Olsen had ordered and every time a fishing industry constituent would leave the governor's office. He said the scuttlebutt on the street from those meetings eventually found their way back to the department.

"And they'd go tell their constituents, their friends on the zone councils or whatever, 'We've been in to see the governor, he's going to fire the commissioner.' So I get this back from my staff when they go to meetings. I've actually had people come up to the window at the DMR headquarters to get licenses and say, 'I understand you're boss is going to be out of here soon.' And my staff comes to me and says, 'Gee, Norm is that really true?'"

Olsen says the continued drumbeat from the fishing industry for his removal, and unacceptable developments within the department ,made LePage's Labor Day deadline for upping his poll numbers unacceptable.

"Even within the department, the opposition was getting so strong to the study and to my continued investigation of these programs that one supervisor even ordered her subordinates to no longer provide me with information," Olsen says. "So that was at the point that I went to the governor and I said, 'Governor, if I'm going to pursue your agenda, I actually need your support and I need it now, not after Labor Day.' And that support was not forthcoming in a way that would have allowed me to proceed."

In a written statement, members of the Maine Lobstermen's Association said they had no comment on Olsen's resignation, but went on to say, "We know that Gov. LePage has shown strong support for Maine's lobster industry and our coastal communities. We are certain the governor's heart is with the industry and that his administration will ensure that the state is in the best position possible to keep our lobster fishery strong."

LePage's office offered only a brief acknowledgement that Olsen had resigned, effective today, and that he was "grateful to Commissioner Olsen for his work in my administration."

LePage says that Patrick C. Keliher, who was previously Acting Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources has been sworn in as Olsen's replacement and will serve in an acting capacity while the search opens for a new commissioner to lead the agency.

See Norm Olsen's resignation letter below:



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