Crown Politics

Maine’s top government watchdog is leaving

Good morning from Augusta. The founding head of the Legislature’s watchdog agency, Beth Ashcroft, will leave her post in August at a time when her staff is likely to be in the middle of its probe into Maine’s child welfare system.

Ashcroft is one of the more respected people in state government. Under her direction, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has authored landmark reports — particularly around state economic development incentives and expenses at the Maine Turnpike Authority that led to the conviction of its former executive director.

Her office is unique in that it’s controlled by a bipartisan legislative panel, the Government Oversight Committee. Ashcroft, a former Central Maine Power auditor, was hired 13 years ago to enshrine the office, which has wide authority to investigate state departments.

The office’s value is not questioned much these days, but leading legislative Democrats wondered in 2002 if its authority was too wide. The bill to start it passed overwhelmingly after an effort from key lawmakers — including David Trahan, a Republican who now runs the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and Matthew Dunlap, now the Democratic secretary of state.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who was a Democratic lawmaker then and is on the Government Oversight Committee now, said the office has gone “way beyond my expectations” and he attributed a lot of that to the “outstanding” Ashcroft.

Lawmakers are concerned about the office’s workload given her imminent departure, but she has given them a long runway to find a replacement.The committee authorized OPEGA to investigate Maine’s child welfare system on Friday after the recent deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, allegedly at the hands of family members.

The office will investigate the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and produce a May report on the girls’ deaths and another, more time-consuming report on the child welfare system. But Saviello said he also expects OPEGA to investigate the state’s unemployment system and perhaps a forestry issue before another committee that he leads.

He said Ashcroft’s departure has him “concerned” about the workload. Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, the committee’s co-chair, said her “heart sank” when she found out Ashcroft is leaving, but that her “wonderful staff” will provide continuity.

Ashcroft said Tuesday (during a massive snowstorm) that she and her husband have long talked about wintering in Arizona, so they’ll remain in Maine part-time. She’s sticking around until Aug. 24 to help find and train her replacement and the job is already being advertised.

The Fiddlehead Focus / St. John Valley Times is pleased to feature content from our sister company, Bangor Daily News. To read the rest of “Maine’s top government watchdog is leaving,” an article by contributing Bangor Daily News staff writer Michael Shepherd, please follow this link to the BDN online.

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