Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. to reflect Glen Libby’s correct town of residence.
AUGUSTA — After months of pursuing Gov. Paul LePage’s policy goals, Norm Olsen resigned Wednesday as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources because he felt he did not have the chief executive’s full support.
Olsen, 60, of Cherryfield, was selected by the LePage administration in January and confirmed unanimously by the Legislature. But after a 45-minute meeting Wednesday morning, the governor accepted his letter of resignation, a single, handwritten sentence effective immediately.
Though Olsen had generated controversy in the marine resources industry by discussing the possibility of changing long-established policies, both Olsen and a LePage spokesman agreed that there were on the same page policy-wise. “I was addressing all the issues that came to me,” Olsen said in a phone interview. “That generated a lot of flak and people objected to even discussion of troll caught lobsters and they were equally venomous when talking about license transferability.”
Olsen was also conducting a top to bottom review of the DMR, which he claimed stirred resentment among staffers.
“They have been uncovering what I would call numerous deficiencies in the way we operate, including programs that basically have not benefit for the state and one program that essentially doesn’t even exist,” Olsen said.
“That started generating a lot of flak in house.”
Eventually, Olsen was informed that members of industry and DMR staffers were emerging from meetings with LePage and saying publicly that the commissioner was going to be fired.
“They are walking around saying that I am a short-timer and that I’m going to be fired soon so that nobody has to deal with me,” he said. “What I found was I could tolerate that as long as I thought the governor had my back.”
But Olsen said he realized he might be on his own after two LePage staffers issued a warning to him during a recent meeting. They said that complaints Olsen was not responsive enough to industry had reached LePage’s office.
“I was put on warning that I had until the end of the summer to turn the situation around,” Olsen said.
After running into more difficulty conducting his departmental audit and feeling more and more left out of industry communications with the LePage administration, Olsen decided he needed to see the governor.
Olsen said he told LePage on Wednesday morning about the difficulties he was having with staffers, and the governor told him sort the situation out and fire people if he had to. Olsen told the governor he was wary of doing that because he had been told he needs to boost his popularity.
“I’m not supposed to generate any more flack and pursuing your agenda, sir, not my agenda, is creating a heck of a lot of flack as I get down into the entrenched programs and special interests and everything else,” Olsen recounted. “So I can’t very well go down and straighten this out unless you’re going to back me up on it.”
Olsen said he was told a LePage staffer would conduct a poll of industry people around Labor Day to see if he was being more responsive — if they said he was, he could keep his job and if they said he wasn’t, his position would be re-evaluated.
The governor was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but Adam Fisher, a spokesman for LePage who was not at the meeting, said that ultimatum was never given.
After walking about three-quarters of the way out of LePage’s office, Olsen said he turned around and delivered his resignation letter.
“I had hoped we could fix a lot of things and generate jobs for those people who have been cut out by the limited entry systems at our fisheries,” Olsen said. “There had been ways to fix that, ways to generate revenues and jobs for coastal communities and it’s not going to happen if we’re going to listen to anonymous detractors.”
Members of the marine resources industry were reluctant to weigh in on the situation and many were surprised to hear of Olsen’s departure.
James Markos, president of the Maine Seafood Alliance, said Olsen had “been very responsive to any questions that I’ve had.”
“With any newcomer, you really want to wait and see to see how things settle in and for me that period of time had not yet been achieved,” he said. “I was really surprised to hear (he resigned).”
Glen Libby of Port Clyde said the job is a tough one for anyone. Libby is a member of the DMR Advirory Council and New England Fisheries Management and fishes shrimp and ground fish.
“He had his own unique style — I thought he was straightforward, he didn’t beat around the bush and he seemed real honest,” he said. “In any type of fishing, people want to be left alone. So it’s a tough job.”
A statement issued by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said the group had no comment.
Patrick Keliher, who had been acting deputy commissioner of the department, has been sworn in as Olsen’s replacement, according to a release from the governor’s office.
Three other top LePage officials have resigned so far in the first year of the administration, and one has been asked to resign. Economic adviser Lawrence Dwight Jr., was asked to resign Tuesday after he was charged with domestic assault. Resigning earlier in the year were commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development Phil Congdon, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection Darryl Brown and communications director Dan Demeritt.
Rebekah Metzler — 620-7016