ROCKLAND, Maine — Claiming the county commissioners have attempted to usurp her authority to run her department, Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison has filed a lawsuit aimed at clarifying just who is in charge.
Dennison and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association filed the suit in Lincoln County Superior Court last week.
The lawsuit, filed by association attorney Jonathan R. Berry of Portland, asks the court to determine whether Dennison or the commissioners have oversight over her department. The commissioners claim the county charter gives them, through their agent, the county administrator, authority.
“The commissioners have asserted an ‘ultimate authority’ over essential and sensitive internal sheriff’s office matters,” Berry said in a news release. That includes day-to-day patrol assignments, the conduct of internal investigations and the appointment of deputies.
The commissioners voted last month to assume control of the department when Dennison rebuffed their attempts to discern how she intended to discipline deputies involved in a hazing incident.
The hazing incident involved the use of a stun gun on an off-duty deputy during his bachelor party in 2007. Although she initially withheld the results of her investigation and the subsequent discipline of the six deputies involved, Dennison eventually provided County Administrator Andrew Hart with the results of her investiga-tion.
Four of the deputies involved in the stun-gun incident received written letters of reprimand, and one received an oral reprimand. Action against another deputy is pending arbitration.
The issue of whether Hart or Dennison should mete out discipline to Sheriff’s Department employees was raised during the ongoing contract negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing county employee. The contract expired last month.
Berry said Knox is one of a handful of Maine counties that has adopted a county charter. He said the state law establishing the charter authority specifically omitted giving an administrator authority over the sheriff, district attorney or judge of probate.
“The law could not be more explicit in saying the county commissioners cannot issue orders to a deputy, either on duty or off duty,” Berry said Wednesday. “The sheriff is a constitutional office. They are specifically referred to in the state constitution; the county commissioners are not. [The commissioners] were established by the Legislature. Under the constitution, the sheriff reports to the governor.”
County Attorney Peter T. Marchesi said Thursday the issue was “distorted and blown well out of proportion.” Marchesi said the commissioners want nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the department, but simply want to follow the tenets of the charter, which require that the county administrator handle all personnel matters.
Marchesi said the union contract contained “ambiguities” that needed to be eliminated. He said the commissioners were attempting to deal with a “discreet area of county government” dealing with allegations of misconduct and the imposition of discipline on county employees.
“The simple fact of the matter is that neither the commissioners nor the administrator have any intent or want to have any involvement in the department,” he said.
Berry said the sheriff and the sheriffs’ association filed suit to determine whether state laws authorizing county charters also permit the reorganization of county law enforcement administration. He said that while the commissioners have control over the sheriff’s budget, the sheriff has control over her department, including all decisions effecting its operations.
“We acknowledge their power to do what they need to do,” Berry said of the commissioners. “We’re asking the court to rule that we can do our job and make sure that the men and women who serve the public report to one master, if you will.”