Resignations from Gov. Paul LePage’s cabinet prompted some thoughts about the precarious balancing act by successful commissioners of state agencies.

I’m not writing about a specific resignation. There are two sides to every story, and in the case of the recent resignation of Norm Olsen, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, I don’t know more than what has been reported in the news. What I know was learned during eight years assisting in the care and feeding of the relationship between former Gov. Angus King and the 17 people in his cabinet at any one time.

A commissioner isn’t just staff to a governor. Every commissioner has obligations to the public laid out in state law and a responsibility to implement programs instituted by law — many of which won’t be priorities of a new administration, but are nonetheless long-standing obligations of the agency.

All governors begin their terms believing they bring a unique, fresh perspective to governing and that all who came before them were wrong-headed. All governors will, at some point, learn that as CEO of state government, they will have to pay attention to issues that never arose during a campaign, and they must rely on the institutional knowledge of a state agency to solve them. It’s often commissioners who must bring this potentially unwelcome perspective to a new chief executive.

A commissioner serves one boss but many masters. The boss is the governor — the person ultimately responsible for hiring and firing. A commissioner who loses the respect and trust of the governor cannot be effective.

However, even if a commissioner enjoys the full support of a governor, it might not be enough. Enter the other masters — constituents, agency staffs and the Legislature — who are the three legs of the stool supporting an effective commissioner.

The commissioner must enjoy the respect of the agency’s constituents (and deal effectively with their lobbyists) as well as the agency’s employees. They must earn the bipartisan respect of the legislative committee that oversees them. If two of these areas get shaky, even the strong endorsement of the governor might not be enough to keep them from toppling. If all get shaky, no governor will rely on the sturdiness of that stool.

The public that shapes the direct constituency of an agency differs widely.

For example, the education commissioner has school boards, superintendents, teachers, parents and students. Municipalities and the road construction industry are for the transportation commissioner. Prisoners, victims, county jails are under the corrections commissioner, while hospitals, nursing homes, foster parents and needy families are for the health and human services commissioner, and so on. Every constituency demands and deserves some degree of personal attention from the commissioner.

That constituency doesn’t have to agree with the commissioner, but its members must believe that they are being treated truthfully and fairly.

It’s broadly believed that employees of a state agency are just plain resigned to outlive a new commissioner. Personal experience suggests to me this myth is woefully false. State employees look eagerly to fresh and energetic leadership at the top of their agency and they respond to it with their best effort. They are an important leg of the stool an effective governor and commissioner appreciates and nurtures.

No commissioner will accomplish change for a governor without the respect and occasional cooperation of the Legislature, particularly the committee that oversees his or her department. The Legislature holds the purse strings and makes the policy. No commissioner or governor in Maine’s history has found a way around that constitutionally constructed bridge to effective governance.

Any governor who appoints a commissioner thinking his patronage is enough to get the job done will quickly learn about the influence of the other masters. Anybody who takes a commissioner’s job thinking it will provide prestige and power quickly learns about the hard work that must get done to earn it.

Not all are up to the task.

Kay Rand is former chief of staff for Maine independent Gov. Angus King.

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