MACHIAS, Maine — A meeting Wednesday afternoon between six members of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and six county lawyers progressed somewhat like a marriage.
First there was the honeymoon stage, when everyone at the meeting greeted one another civilly, ordered lunch and began talking.
Then there was a rough patch, a tense time when barbs were exchanged and people’s real feelings were expressed, sometimes unpleasantly.
And finally, the group evolved into one where calmer discussion was held, solutions explained and promises made to try to do better.
Sheriff Donnie Smith called the meeting between the Sheriff’s Department and a half-dozen lawyers in the Calais area to iron out difficulties regarding serving civil paperwork.
Civil paperwork involves divorces, evictions, child custody and foreclosures.
The lawyers complained late last year that civil service was taking too long and travel costs were too high. Therefore, they wanted a civil deputy stationed in Calais to alleviate these problems.
Smith said the civil deputies are given the paperwork the same day it is received at the sheriff’s office, and the turnaround time for service averages from seven to 10 days.
Although Calais is Washington County’s largest city, Smith said that only 2 percent of his civil paperwork is generated there. That would not justify hiring an additional civil process server for Calais, he said.
But Smith asserted, the court system is not giving lawyers enough notice of court dates to allow the paperwork to be served properly. Smith said the lack of notice is the root of the problem.
“The system is broken. I will work with you,” Smith said. “We’re in this nightmare together.”
Smith said that subpoena service, for example, is extremely difficult, and that with last-minute court changes, some people have to be served five or six times. “What do we hear from them? That they’ll never call the cops again,” Smith said.
Civil service deputies said serving paperwork is complicated. Deputy Paul Comeau, who covers the Calais area, said he served eviction notices to one man 11 different times for 11 different addresses. “I had to go back to his home three times for each one of those,” he said. “People hide. They don’t answer the door. They send their children to the door to say Mommy and Daddy aren’t home.”
Corinna Richardson, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s civil division, said that since 1989, service fees have not increased, even though mileage reimbursements have. Mileage reimbursement is at 44 cents per mile.
“For 20 years, the civil process fees have remained at $16,” Richardson said. “That means that if a process server makes three attempts to serve papers, that is $5.33 per attempt. Try to get anyone else out to your home for $5.33 for a service call.”
Richardson said she had encountered no difficulties with any lawyers aside from the Calais group.
“I don’t understand why we only have this problem with Calais attorneys,” Richardson said. “We deal with attorneys from all over the state, the country.”
Jeff Davidson, who practices in the Machias area, said he didn’t understand the issue. “I’ve never had a problem with the service,” he said. Addressing the issue of the sheriff’s office hiring an additional server, Davidson said, “I don’t want my county taxes going up so that private litigants can get a smaller bill.”
Ron Mosley, a Machias lawyer, said he was disappointed that a suggestion to accept electronic or faxed paperwork appeared to be dismissed by the sheriff’s office.
“This is where the world is going,” he said. “It would result in savings in time and money. I am not suggesting we solve this today, but please be open to consider it.” Mosley said sending electronic notifications to the civil division could cut four to five days off the serving process.
Sgt. Louis Beal of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, which handles 9,000 civil papers annually, was at the meeting to advise Smith. He said his department accepts electronic paperwork only in rare, emergency situations.
“I would suggest using it only in extreme emergencies,” he said.
Richardson, who works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and handles four other jobs as well as the civil division, said it all comes down to time. “What if a fax or e-mail comes in after 2 p.m.?” she said. “I can’t stretch any further. We are not going to change the whole system for a couple of attorneys in an isolated area. You are asking for special favors.”
Mosley disagreed. “We’re not asking you to treat anyone differently. We would all be treated the same with an electronic system. It is a reasonable, cost-free solution.”
After nearly two hours of discussion and some accusations from both sides regarding “having a closed mind,” the parties began discussing the details of how electronic submissions would work.
Smith promised the lawyers that he would discuss possible changes with the civil division in his department, which could include reviewing the feasibility of accepting electronic paperwork.
“I’ve heard some great suggestions here today,” Smith said. “Some good ideas. This is all a work in progress and I’m willing to try some of this.”
Richardson also told the attorneys that they could quickly call her in an emergency situation and she could attempt to speed the process through.