08/03/2021: The MHRC's operations are continuing via hybrid processes that involve some in-person/on-site and some remote processes, with many of the changes made regarding electronic filings and participation continuing on.
News flash: MHRC is not biased! Read the long-awaited September 27, 2016 Report of the Governor's Panel to Review and Make Recommendations for Improvement of the Maine Human Rights Commission and its Operations here.
On February, 2015, Governor LePage called the MHRC and asked its Executive Director to postpone a meeting scheduled that day in a pending case, stating that if we did not do so he would take the agency to court. The MHRC's Executive Director explained why she would not grant the Governor's request and offered to talk generally about his concerns and the agency's process with him. The phone call did not end in any agreement. The MHRC determined not to postpone that day's meeting. A day or so later, the Governor declined to sign a routine financial order previously submitted by the MHRC to utilize monies in its accounts. Several weeks thereafter, counsel for the Office of the Governor submitted a request to our agency that we reconsider our findings in the case at issue; the MHRC's Commissioners considered the request at their March 23, 2015 meeting and did not take any action on it.
On April 21, 2015, the Office of the Governor issued an Executive Order stating that there were perceptions in Maine's business community that the MHRC was biased in its outcomes and processes in favor of persons who filed claims with our agency. This Executive Order was not made public in any way. The MHRC learned of the Executive Order on August 15, 2015, and on August 24 informed the Office of the Governor that we believed the Executive Order had been issued in retaliation for our agency's refusal to follow a directive by the Governor in a pending case, and that the failure to make the document public rendered it unlawful under the State's Freedom of Access Act. After media outlets reported on this, on October 14, 2015 the Office of the Governor rescinded the 4/21/2015 Executive Order and issued a new one to remedy the publication issue; in the 10/14/2015, there was no statement about the Review Panel's work being exempt from FOAA.
The Review Panel began its work in October 2015. On November 19, 2015 the Office of the Governor issued yet another replacement Executive Order, this time declaring that the workings of the Review Panel would not be subject to FOAA. According to the November 19 Executive Order, the Review Panel's report was to be completed by April 2016, with an option to extend its report deadline by two months.
At every step in the Review Panel's work, the MHRC fully cooperated with Panel, providing it with data, staff interviews, procedural and outcome information, and more.
The MHRC is glad that the Review Panel's work is completed, and appreciates the Panel's hard work and thoughtful recommendations. We are not surprised by any of the Report's findings, though the MHRC is disheartened to hear that some members of the business community believe that our agency is biased in favor of complainants. Our agency hears concerns about our "fairness" from everyone involved in disputes being litigated at the MHRC, no matter the category into which they fall: pro se and represented complainants, pro se and represented respondents, lawyers for both sides, landlords and tenants, employers and employees, people with disabilities and people who asked to accommodate them, etc.; the list of people who find the MHRC unfair is unending. To us, that means we are doing the job of being neutral if everyone is equally aggrieved. We are, however, reassured by the Review Panel's findings that any particular group's perception of bias is likely the result of lack of information about the MHRC's legal obligations and process, and look forward to working to dispel such misconceptions in the future.
With the Panel's Report submitted, the MHRC is hopeful that the Office of the Governor will accept the Panel's findings, most importantly those which lay to rest the Governor's stated suspicions about our agency's neutrality and professionalism. Our agency sees the Report as a call to action for this administration to shore up the MHRC's resources, particularly given the Report's repeated concerns about the MHRC's dire need of substantial additional staff and funding. The MHRC looks forward to working with the Executive Branch administration to put many of the Review Panel's recommendations into effect.
Additionally, the MHRC anticipates that the outstanding financial orders and hiring justification requests that the MHRC has submitted to the Office of the Governor, and which the Governor has declined to approve/consider while awaiting this Report, will be approved quickly.