June 18, 2018
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Bill would give sheriffs control of second-in-command

By Daniel Hartill, Sun Journal

LEWISTON, Maine — One of the top appointed officials in each Maine county may soon answer exclusively to each county’s sheriff.

A new bill in the Maine Legislature would take the position of chief deputy out of each county commission’s control, giving the authority of selection, employment and discipline to the sheriff.

That’s where it was meant to be all along, said former Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, a Lewiston native who now represents Portland in the Maine House.

Maine law gives each sheriff the right to appoint a chief deputy, who typically serves as the sheriff’s second-in-command. Dion argues that issues such as qualifications, hours of employment and responses to poor performance should similarly rest with the sheriff.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins supports the measure.

“The bill helps us all in a way,” said Desjardins, who testified last month in support of the measure. Several of Maine’s 16 sheriffs have had political struggles over the position, he said. “At least it clarifies who makes the management decisions.”

The bill has its critics.

The Maine County Commissioners Association has expressed concerns about how the job will fit in with other county appointees such as treasurer and clerk.

If the bill passes, the chief deputy would be a kind of special case, exempt from the personnel policies decided by each county commission, argued Randall Greenwood, chairman of the Androscoggin County Commission.

Though the three-member commission has made no official comment, Greenwood said he opposes the measure.

The new measure would have made Desjardins’ tenure easier.

Soon after his election in 2006, county commissioners and outgoing Sheriff Ronald Gagnon tried remaking the chief deputy’s role as a part-time job. Months later, commissioners declined to acknowledge Desjardins’ choice of Eric Samson as an acting chief deputy, referring to Samson as “sergeant” though he had the chief deputy’s office and his name and title were on department letterhead.

More recently, Desjardins and the commission have disagreed over when Chief Deputy Michael Lemay ought to work his 40-plus hours. Lemay and Desjardins wanted a four-day week. Commissioners wanted a five-day week.

Commissioners won.

Though Dion was aware of Desjardins’ situation, he said the proposed change grew out of his own experience.

“This comes out of 12 years as a Maine sheriff,” he said. “It’s not just Androscoggin County. There are other counties with disagreements.”

Dion argues that the state statutes that govern county government deserve a top-to-bottom analysis. The writing and rewriting of laws over the decades has left ambiguities, holes and inconsistencies, he said. It made researching the proposal a chore.

“It was as much of an archaeological dig as anything,” Dion said.

The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full Legislature with an “ought to pass” recommendation.

To see more of the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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