At a hearing on Monday, Maine’s committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (ACF), held what was meant to be the simple confirmation hearing for Tom Dubois, the representative of Franklin County on the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC).
But Democratic lawmakers, acting at the behest of activists from the left-wing Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and other liberal nonprofits, turned Dubois’s confirmation into a proxy fight in their campaign to block economic development in northern Maine.
“It turned into a dog-and-pony show over the Pickett Mountain,” said Franklin County Commissioner Bob Carlton in an interview with The Maine Wire.
The hearing, which was scheduled to be a 30-minute formality confirming Dubois, turned into an hour-and-a-half debate about a coming vote on the Pickett Mountain mining development in Northern Maine.
The committee failed to confirm Dubois, leaving Franklin without a representative on the LUPC.
The meeting began with an introduction of Dubois, and his extensive experience in engineering and land zoning, by Carlton.
Following the introduction, Dubois came to the podium to be questioned by the committee.
Sen. Henry Ingwersen (D-York), the Chair of the ACF, began the questioning of Dubois with the unusual request that the nominee be under oath during his testimony because they were asking some “very difficult” questions.
Sen. Russell Black (R-Franklin) objected, saying that the ACF committee had never required a nominee to be under oath in a confirmation meeting before.
“I’m the longest serving member. I’ve been here 14 years, and I’ve never seen this done before,” said Sen. Black.
Black moved that, if Dubois must be under oath, all others called to give testimony must also be under oath.
Black’s motion was approved.
The vast majority of the questions asked of Dubois were not about his qualifications, as is the usual line of questioning for a confirmation hearing. Instead, most of the questions were about the proposed Pickett Mountain Mine in Northern Maine’s unincorporated territories.
The proposed Mine would require the re-zoning of 374 acres of the over 7,000 acres of land owned by the Canadian Wolfden Resources Corporation.
The land contains a large deposit of zinc, as well as amounts of lead, copper, gold, and silver, which the company estimates to be worth $1.4 billion and claims, if it were mined, could generate up to 300 jobs earning $90,000/year.
Wolfden’s proposal has been the subject of significant debate and controversy, with many people giving testimony for and against the mine at public hearings held by the LUPC.
The opponents of the mine cite the potential environmental impact, particularly the impact on nearby fishing waters.
The final decision will be made by a vote of the LUPC on February 24.
Sen. Ingwersen opened the questioning of Dubois by asking whether he would recuse himself from the February vote, since he was not at the numerous hearings regarding the mine, and would be confirmed only a month before the vote.
Dubois was ready to join the LUPC in September, and has used that time to read the 1,198 pages of documents and review the hearings on the mine, he said.
Dubois refused to promise to recuse himself from the vote unless he felt unprepared to make a decision on the issue by February’s vote.
Black supported Dubois’ position, as he had never heard of a nominee being asked to preemptively recuse himself from a decision before being confirmed.
After Dubois was questioned by the committee, primarily about his knowledge of the Pickett Mountain mine decision rather than his qualifications to serve on the LUPC, the ACF committee heard testimonies from the public for and against Dubois.
Frmr. State Senator Tom Saviello spoke in favor of Dubois, pointing out that the confirmation hearing is meant to be about the nominee’s qualifications, rather than his opinion on a specific issue.
“I think you have a very outstanding individual who has asked to come into this,” said Saviello.
After Saviello’s testimony, Robert Berry, a member of the board of directors for the Greater Franklin Development Council, and a former colleague of Dubois spoke in his favor.
“My personal opinion, under oath: you guys would be crazy not to approve him,” said Berry.
No one chose to officially speak against the nominee, although everyone who chose to speak “neither for nor against” Dubois staunchly opposed Wolfden’s mine, and would not support his confirmation unless he promised to recuse himself from the February vote.
Rep. Bill Bridgeo (D-Augusta) spoke “neither for nor against.”
“He does seem like a fine gentleman and a wonderfully qualified applicant potentially at the right time for this position,” said Rep. Bridgeo.
He nevertheless did not support Dubois, because he did not recuse himself, claiming that if Dubois were to vote on the mine, there would appear to be a conflict of interest.
“The appearance of a conflict is as important as any actual conflict,” said Bridgeo, without specifying the nature of the alleged conflict.
When questioned by the committee, Bridgeo could not point to anything that would suggest an actual conflict of interest, but said that nevertheless, Dubois was ethically required to recuse himself to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
Multiple representatives of environmental activism groups, such as the NRCM, the Maine Audubon Society, and the Conservation Law Foundation, as well as two representatives of Wabanaki tribes spoke against Dubois’ confirmation.
They were unable to criticize Dubois based on his qualifications, and instead focused on their criticism of the mine, and once again demanded that Dubois recuse himself from the meeting.
The various people who demanded that Dubois recuse himself did so with the assertion that, because Dubois was not in attendance at the numerous meetings and hearings about the Wolfden mine, he would be unable to cast an informed vote.
They claimed that watching the recordings of the meetings, reading transcripts of the testimonies sent to the LUPC, and reviewing official documentation about the mine was insufficient to prepare Dubois for the controversial vote, because he would have a different experience than the LUPC members who attended all the meetings.
Sean Mahoney, a lawyer from the Conservation Law Foundation, firmly believed that, because Dubois did not attend the public hearings in person, he would not have the same experience as the other LUPC members, and thus should recuse himself.
Rep. Randall Hall (R-Wilton) asked Mahoney whether all the current members of the LUPC attended the public hearings on the mine.
“My understanding is that they did participate,” said Mahoney, testifying under oath.
Mahoney was incorrect, however, not all the current LUPC members did attend all the public hearings on the Wolfden mine.
Black called on the Executive Director of the LUPC, Stacie Beyer, to ask about the attendance rules for LUPC members.
Only one LUPC member is required to be present at any public hearing, and, according to Beyer, one member failed to attend any of the public hearings.
Although Beyer did not say which member of the LUPC had failed to attend any hearings on the issue, but a review of the recordings of public hearings show that Lee Smith was the absent member, while Millard Billings had to attend some hearings remotely, which is not substantially different from watching a recording.
Despite this, the ACF committee voted 7-5 not to confirm Dubois in his appointment.
The vote was generally split along party lines, with all Democrats on the committee and the one Independent opposing the confirmation, and Republicans voting in favor, with one member, Rep. Danny Costain (R-Plymouth), absent.
Ironically, Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec) left the confirmation meeting during the nominee’s introduction, before hearing any testimonies.
Sen. Hickman then returned to the hearing at the end, and, rather than recusing himself from the vote, as Democrats on the ACF committee would have required Dubois to do, Hickman voted not to confirm Dubois, after having heard none of the testimonies.
After the meeting, The Maine Wire reached out to Dubois to get his opinion on the meeting.
“They’re voting on a four-year term for that commission, and they’ve rejected a candidate based on one singular issue, one singular project, instead of considering the four years that I will be able to serve and contribute,” said Dubois.
Dubois told The Maine Wire that, following the recent hearing, he is unsure whether he would accept another nomination if the Franklin County Commissioners were to choose to nominate him again at a later date.
Mahoney, via a press secretary, responded to an inquiry asking whether he was concerned about having supplied false information to the committee while under oath.
He reiterated opposition to the Pickett Mountain Mine project and claimed that his testimony was accurate.
“Our testimony was accurate, and if any lawmakers got the wrong impression, we’re happy to answer any questions they might have,” his press hand said.