Being a public official is not always easy. One of the most difficult parts of the job (and here I can speak from a brief experience some years ago) is that accountability to the public is mandatory. You have to do it whether you like it or not, and often you don’t like it. If the public has questions or concerns, they must be addressed. You can’t decline to respond either to the media or your fellow citizens and you can’t claim immunity from comment if what you’ve done or failed to do has been called into question. You must report to the people you serve, period.
And that’s why something amazing happened this week in Augusta, having to do with allegations regarding the Maine Warden Service. Most readers probably know by now that the Service has been accused of misconduct and very slow compliance (apparently almost non-compliance) in fulfilling a FOAA request from one of the state’s largest newspapers. Prior to making the charges public, the reporter for the paper offered to interview the Warden Service for their reaction, but that offer was refused.
On June 1, the joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife held a hearing “ to consider allegations of misconduct by game wardens during undercover sting operations.” That’s when something truly astonishing occurred. As reported by the Portland Press Herald, “When asked if he would investigate the conduct of officers in these operations, Col. Joel Wilkinson of the warden service said a flat no. “I’m not going to put my officers under investigation because someone misprints false allegations,” Wilkinson huffed.”
The astonishing part is not only that a public official refused to investigate some very serious charges brought against his subordinates, but also that no member of the committee advised him that he did not have a choice.
II you’re the head of a private corporation, you can decline to be interviewed and not respond to whatever issues have been raised, but not if you’re a public official. There is an obligation here to be transparent and forthright, and report the findings to those who need to know as well as the public who, after all, in this situation, is comparable to employers. Otherwise, how can allegations be described as ‘false’ unless they’ve been investigated?
The position taken by Colonel Wilkinson undermined the committee’s credibility which also wasn’t helped when the public was not allowed to comment. Instead, the questions were framed and asked by the members of the committee. Yet none of this is surprising. The IFW committee is part of an ‘ole boy’ network that includes the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the hunting/trapping organizations that dominate wildlife in Maine. In short, they were not about to embarrass their colleagues and possibly their friends by examining the situation closely and objectively. It’s yet another window into how a very small minority in a very cozy relationship treats matters that concern the public as if they were merely minor issues amongst members of a private club.
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Paul Davis, the co -chair, said “that the panel had no plans to look into any other allegations.”
Also at the end of the hearing, another legislator, -one not on the committee – was quoted as saying that “all that was missing were the pompoms and the cheerleaders.”
The end result was no result. Allegations were not examined, probing questions were not asked, and the people of our state knew no more after the hearing than they did before (which wasn’t much) though the media was strongly criticized by the committee in the usual manner of attacking the messenger instead of responding to the message.
The hearing wasn’t about impartially looking into some very serious charges and getting some answers. Unfortunately, it was also not about satisfying the legitimate need for the public to know what’s being done in their name.
For more perspectives about Maine’s wildlife and other related matters, tune into a new radio program Into The Wilderness broadcast Tuesday evenings from 8-8:30 on WMPG FM 90.9.