Reasons for deputy’s exit disputed

Posted Oct. 09, 2008, at 9:56 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Citing health reasons, Washington County commissioners have terminated the employment of Sgt. Rodney Merritt, a full-time deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.

But Sheriff Donnie Smith said Wednesday that Merritt’s job was terminated last week because the deputy failed to report to work for 58 days and falsified his time sheet.

Merritt said Thursday evening that the allegations by the sheriff were unfounded and that county commissioners agreed unanimously with Merritt.

“I think the truth will come out in the long run and anybody who watches this objectively can see the truth,” he said.

The commissioners also terminated sheriff’s Lt. David Denbow for health reasons, but unlike the Merritt case, commissioners said the termination was unfortunate given that Denbow had been a valued employee for many years, Washington County Manager Linda Pagels said Thursday.

Details of Merritt’s job termination are unclear at best.

Smith terminated Merritt’s employment on Sept. 10, citing Merritt’s failure to report to work and for falsifying time sheets, the sheriff indicated in his September report, which he issued to several county offices, including the commissioners, and news media. The next day, the commissioners overturned Merritt’s termination because, under state law, the sheriff cannot terminate a county worker’s employment. He can only make a recommendation for termination, Pagels said Thursday.

Pagels said Smith recommended to commissioners on Sept. 11 that Merritt’s employment be terminated. On that date, the commissioners notified Merritt in writing that he had been reinstated as a deputy and that a hearing had been set for Oct. 2 to review his status, she said.

On Sept. 19, Smith suspended Merritt without pay for “falsifying documents and failure to report to work,” Smith’s monthly report indicated.

On Oct. 2, the commissioners determined that Merritt’s family leave had expired on Sept. 30. Left without any family leave options, the commissioners were forced to terminate Merritt’s employment, Pagels said.

But Pagels disagreed with how the sheriff portrayed the situation in his monthly report.

“There was a medical situation and [Merritt was] unable to come back and perform his duties,” she said Wednesday. Pagels said there were never any disciplinary proceedings involving Merritt.

“Overall, Merritt was a good employee. He has not been disciplined or reprimanded for any issues, and at this point his personnel file is clean,” Pagels said.

Pagels also explained that another factor in the commissioners’ decision to overturn Merritt’s Sept. 10 termination was “because Merritt was on family medical leave, which protects his job. So the falsifying time sheet sounds horrendous. He was putting worker’s [compensation] on his time sheet instead of family medical leave,” she said.

The sheriff said that Merritt’s on-again off-again work relationship with the county began months ago.

Merritt “had two terms of family medical leave actually. The last one started in July [2008]. He was out for some time in the spring [of this year] and he came back for about 13 hours. I think he worked a shift and a half in July. We put him back out on family medical leave. We were under the impression that he was on worker’s compensation and … we found out that his worker’s comp had been terminated in June. So my issue was if you are not on worker’s comp and you tell me you are, I have an issue with that,” Smith said.

On Thursday, in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News, Smith reiterated his position that Merritt was terminated because of failure to report to work and for providing false documentation.

It has been a seesaw few months for Merritt and Smith, who at one time were political opponents. Last year, Smith and Merritt and former sheriff’s deputy and state Rep. George Bunker faced off in a hotly contested race for the sheriff’s job. Smith won in November 2007.

When asked if he thought politics had a role in Smith’s actions, Merritt said, “It is hard to understand what Smith’s motivation is. It makes a person wonder.”

Although Smith took umbrage with the interpretation of Merritt’s termination as presented by the county, he did have high praise for Denbow, who worked for the county for 25 years. Smith said Denbow’s departure was a great loss to the county.

“Thank you, Dave, for your commitment to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the citizens of Washington County. You will be surely missed,” the sheriff said in his monthly report

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