In an event that was closed to the public and press, the five Maine gubernatorial candidates — Eliot Cutler, Paul LePage, Libby Mitchell, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott — met in Searsport with representatives from three lobstermen’s associations Oct. 4.

The unpublicized meeting, sponsored by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Southern Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Down East Lobstermen’s Association, took place at the Stephen Phillips Memorial Library, part of the Penobscot Marine Museum. The group of invited guests included roughly 50 people.

According to Patrice McCarron, executive director of MLA, the event was not publicized and was intentionally limited to representatives of the three lobstermen’s organizations. She said she thought rumors had circulated before the event that it would be open, leading to confusion among the candidates and several news organizations, including VillageSoup, which were turned away from the event.

McCarron said the decision to exclude the general public and the press was made in order to encourage candid conversation between the candidates and the industry representatives.

“Our issues are really very unique,” she said. “So we wanted the ability to set a comfortable environment, knowing that not everybody knows the ins and outs of lobstering and fisheries management.”

Speaking Oct. 8, independent candidate Shawn Moody said he became aware that the event was closed shortly before the panel was seated. The Oct. 4 forum was the only gubernatorial forum that has been closed to the press, he said.

Moody said Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell spoke up at the event and said it wasn’t right that the press was barred. David Loughran, a representative of the Mitchell campaign, confirmed that the Democratic candidate raised questions during the forum about the press ban.

“She thought voters should be able to hear the information there that night,” he said. “Even if people can’t come, they should be able to hear the candidates’ views on something as important as lobster fishing.” Loughran said this could have been accomplished by allowing reporters to cover the event.

Eliot Cutler later told VillageSoup that he was unaware in advance that the event would be private.

As a nonprofit, McCarron said MLA is not allowed to endorse a candidate, but the lobstermen, like any constituency, want their interests represented.

“We have people’s livelihoods at stake and who we have as governor is very important to these people,” she said.

MLA published an article on the Oct. 4 gubernatorial canididates’ forum in the organization’s October newsletter. McCarron said the newsletter — available on the organization’s Web site — is mailed to every lobsterman in the state.

According to the article, McCarron, who moderated the event, asked the candidates for their views on the creation of a public-private lobster marketing entity, as recommended by the Governor’s Task Force for the Economic Sustainability of Maine Lobster. The entity would have a $7 million to $11 million budget.

Cutler lamented the decline in the Maine brand as other countries have increased their share in the lobster market. LePage placed an emphasis on solutions from the private sector, but said he would respect the wishes of the lobstermen’s associations. Mitchell OK’d the idea, saying the lobstermen should lead the effort but there could be federal or state matching funds. Moody encouraged the lobstermen to pool their resources to counteract what he described as a “fragmented” marketing effort today.

Scott opposed the marketing entity, saying it was too expensive. As an alternative, the article said, “he mentioned the possibility of setting up property tax exemptions modeled on the existing tree growth exemption program for lobster boats and coastal property as an example. ‘We have to think outside the box to nurture and foster families who lobster,’ Scott said.”

The candidates took on the broader issue of marketing lobsters, including how much and where they should be processed and how far they should be shipped.

Moody, according to the report from the forum, was among several candidates to encourage a creative approach: “People want their lettuce cut up and put in bags. Buying a live lobster is a lot like going down to the grocery store and buying a live chicken. You think, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ Marketing means finding out what people want. You have to be creative.”

On McCarron’s question about the erosion of the state’s Department of Marine Resources, LePage said he would look at the department’s budget and prioritize, but said the larger solution would be found in smaller, business-friendly government, which would increase revenues to fund departments like DMR.

Mitchell said DMR couldn’t be cut any further and that she did not support merging it with another department. Future budget cuts would have to come from larger departments, she said.

On an audience question about how to get more money to DMR, the candidates pointed to major structural changes in government: Mitchell said the only way to give more money to one department is to cut something else; Cutler advocated a smaller, unicameral Legislature as a cost-saver; Scott raised his campaign issue, the voluntary 32-hour work week — also a cost-saving measure. Moody painted a picture of government as working for itself more than for the people, a condition he said must change; LePage said he would apply “tough love” to the government, cutting the fat from what he sees as an oversized state government.

A complete writeup of the debate is available in the October newsletter of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, on the organization’s Web site: mainelobstermen.org.