Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' pick to lead the Department of Environmental Protection cleared the first step in his confirmation process, but not before emerging as a symbol of the state's fractured relationship with Maine's Native American tribes.
Dozens of environmental activists and tribal representatives testified during Jerry Reid's confirmation hearing before the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Reid, who worked as an Assistant-Attorney General under Mills, attempted to offer an olive branch to the tribes by vowing to increase water quality standards on a section of the Penobscot River to allow for sustenance fishing. But his overture did not persuade those who saw him as an opponent to the environmental justice long sought by the tribes.
About four hours into Reid's confirmation hearing, Dawn Neptune Adams finally got her chance to testify. By this time, Adams had heard Reid's pledge to improve relations with the tribe and his supporters' attempt to separate his legal duties as Assistant-Attorney General — duties that put him at odds with the Penobscot Nation when it clashed with the state over who has the authority to regulate paddlers, anglers, hunters and trappers on the Penobscot River.
Adams, a member of the Penobscot Nation and an environmental activist, was asked by Sen. Brownie Carson, a Democrat from Harpswell, if she would work to repair the relationship if Reid was confirmed as DEP commissioner.
Adams, said she would try, but "I'll never trust him. And I'll never trust Janet Mills."
That comment punctuated Reid's confirmation hearing, and it illustrates the challenges Mills faces as she attempts to reset the state's relationship with its Native American people.
Tensions between the tribes and the state have deteriorated, sparking multiple legal battles. As Attorney General, Mills was drawn into those fights because her office represents the state in legal matters. And Reid, as Assistant-Attorney General, was at the forefront of one of the most contentious legal disputes in recent years: regulatory authority over the Penobscot River. So far, the courts have sided with the state and Reid's arguments in that dispute.
Making matters worse, said Penobscot Nation member Sherri Mitchell, an attorney who works on Indigenous rights cases, is that Reid has argued a separate case involving water quality standards on the river.
"All of these actions indicate that sustenance fishing are indeed a big deal in the real world, and they demonstrate Mr. Reid's willingness to fight against the improved water quality standards that are necessary to support them," she said.
Mitchell and others were not consoled by Reid's pledge to pursue higher water quality standards on a 60-mile stretch of the river as DEP commissioner, nor by his willingness to meet with members of the Penobscot Nation.
"I would envision a meeting on Indian Island,” Reid said. “I've tried to travel there several times before, and I think it's important to show a willingness to travel there again for meetings like this, so that I can talk to them more directly about what I'm thinking and also hear from them about what they're thinking.”
Environmental groups were also divided over Reid's nomination. The Sierra Club opposed him, citing his work on tribal water issues, as did other, individual environmental activists. But the Nature Conservancy, Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Environmental Health Strategies Center all supported the nominee.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for NRCM, described Reid's water quality standard proposal as a breakthrough in sustenance fishing rights for the Penobscot people.
"What you heard in terms of a process for improving water quality standards, I just note is something we have not heard in my 22 years working here in the state," Didisheim said.
And Sean Mahoney, with the Conservation Law Foundation, attempted to separate Reid's personal convictions with his duties as an Assistant-Attorney General.
"When one represents a client, you are obligated to do your best to provide that client with the best advice and the best representation that you can,” Mahoney said. “That's your job as an attorney. Sometimes that doesn't necessarily mesh with your own personal views.”
Reid's opponents don't see such a distinction, and some expressed exasperation that Gov. Mills pick him to lead the DEP at the same time she has vowed to improve tribal relations.
Several lawmakers on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee seemed equally perplexed, especially in private. But none who were present Wednesday voted to oppose Reid's confirmation, which now moves to the Senate for a final vote.
Susan Sharon contributed to this report.