Police agreement aims to settle coverage dispute

Posted Sept. 05, 2010, at 11:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:37 a.m.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The adoption of a mutual aid agreement between Piscataquis County commissioners and Guilford town officials might settle a dispute between the two governments over a contract for police coverage.

Guilford has operated its own police department for weekend coverage and special events for more than 40 years — funding salaries and vehicles for its officers, who help the county while wearing the same uniform as county officers and using a vehicle that has the county’s logo. When the Sheriff’s Department needs an immediate response to a complaint in a neighboring town and a county officer is out of the area, Guilford has always allowed its officers to respond.

This arrangement between the town and county has never been formalized with a written contract, and no incidents or disagreements have developed over the years.

When the current board of county commissioners learned last year that the county logo and uniforms were being used without any written agreement, they decided to investigate the county’s liability should a controversial incident occur.

Heidi Swiderek, an underwriter for the Maine Municipal Association, which provides the county’s workers’ compensation coverage, and Malcolm Ulmer of the Maine County Commissioners’ Risk Pool, which carries the county’s liability coverage, both recommended that the county secure a written agreement with Guilford.

In a June 2009 e-mail to Commissioner Fred Trask, Ulmer said it is “clearly in the best interest of the county” to have an agreement drafted by an attorney representing the county. He said the county could be exposed to claims for negligent training or failure to train officers. In addition, a town-owned vehicle being marked as a county vehicle and a town employee wearing a county uniform could lead to lead to claims or lawsuits being filed against the county.

Based on that advice, the commissioners drafted a proposed contract, which was presented this summer to Guilford Town Manager Tom Goulette. Goulette called the sample contract, which was written as if Guilford had requested the change, insulting and said the Guilford selectmen believe the current arrangement should be left alone.

Guilford would be the party responsible for any liability while the officers were employed by the town, Goulette said Friday.

“The stated guise of lawsuit fear and insurance company initiation appears to us to be just excuses to achieve your intentions: complete, uncompromising control,” Goulette wrote in an Aug. 27 letter to the commissioners. “I sincerely hope that no poor lady suffers a domestic beating waiting for a response that could have been handled in a timely manner by Guilford.”

The Guilford Fire Department’s response to traffic control details requested by the Sheriff’s Department also could be affected by the county’s stance, according to Goulette. He said the town has always been glad to assist the Sheriff’s Department, but he now wonders under what authority or “unwritten” contract this type of service and assistance could be delivered. Whose insurance coverage would apply if the Fire Department’s lights failed and an accident occurred while performing the traffic control? he asked.

Goulette said the town and county have the same workers’ compensation carrier and a representative of that company told him there is no issue with compensation coverage. In fact, he said, Maine statutes spell out exactly how a claim would be handled.

“The only position MMA has taken regarding insurance lies with the casualty coverage sections,” he said.

The town manager also acknowledged in his letter to the commissioners that the Maine Municipal Association would prefer to see a written mutual aid agreement between the county and town.

“That might be agreeable, but a mutual aid arrangement is a far cry from the unilaterally conceived, shove-in-your-face, absolute-control-by-county contract you have attempted to dictate,” he wrote.

Contacted on Friday, Piscataquis County Manager Marilyn Tourtelotte said the commissioners would be willing to entertain and review a mutual aid agreement from Guilford.

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