ELLSWORTH, Maine — Divisive rhetoric is a staple of many modern political campaigns but usually manifests in high-profile, costly partisan contests for federal or state office.
When it comes to electing officials in Hancock County government, the races over the past decade or so have been tepid in comparison. Except for relatively recent elections for district attorney, they frequently have gone uncontested.
This year, however, things have changed. Disagreements between the elected commissioners and other county officials, mostly over the role and actions of Phil Roy, the county’s chief financial officer, have led to open political warfare.
In June, just days before the statewide primary election, several current and former county officials took out an ad in the weekly Ellsworth American newspaper urging voters not to cast their ballots for any of the incumbent commissioners.
“Our current board [of commissioners] is solely responsible for creating an atmosphere among employees resulting in low morale and productivity and appears to be unwilling to address a series of improprieties in the county’s financial office,” the ad read.
The ad was signed by Sheriff William Clark, Registrar of Deeds Julie Curtis, Registrar of Probate Bonnie Cousins and Treasurer Janice Eldridge, all of whom hold elected positions. It also was signed by former District Attorney Michael Povich, former Emergency Management Director Ralph Pinkham, former Deputy Treasurer and Deputy EMA Director Linda Feury, and Bob McKinney, former Ellsworth fire chief and EMA planner.
Only one of the three commissioners, Chairman Steve Joy, was facing a primary challenge on June 12. He responded to the ad by writing a letter to the editor to the Bangor Daily News, defending how he and his fellow commissioners have supervised management of the county’s $6.9 million budget.
“Your tax dollars are safe,” Joy wrote.
The day after his letter was published, he won the GOP primary, defeating a fellow Ellsworth resident, City Councilor Matthew Boucher, in a 720-539 vote.
Joy said Thursday that he does not anticipate that the political standoff will affect his ability to effectively oversee the county’s business.
“Not from my side,” Joy said. “I don’t know about [other county officials]. I’m moving on. I can’t spend all my time worrying about those guys.”
Joy repeatedly has defended the job Roy has done for the county. The CFO has helped implement many cost-saving measures, including an electronic time card system that keeps track of when employees come and go from work, Joy has said. The time card system, according to Joy, helped lead to the conviction of a corrections officer at the county jail who was falsifying her time sheets.
Joy said he would not encourage people to run against other county officials who signed their names to the ad, most of whom are midway through terms that expire in 2014. He said he thinks other county officials are qualified for their positions but if it were up to him those positions would be appointed, not elected. That way, he added, those positions always would be filled with the best qualified people available.
“I think it is archaic to be elected to those positions,” Joy said.
Another commissioner, Fay Lawson, is up for re-election this year but said Friday that she has decided not to seek re-election.
Lawson, who is 79, said she decided months ago not to run, before Roy attracted criticism for his handling of funds for agencies outside of Hancock County. Lawson, like Joy, has said Roy has done good work for the county.
Lawson called the advertisement “unprofessional” and said that if other county officials have a concern about Roy’s job performance as CFO, there is an internal complaint procedure they can follow. She said the concerns expressed by other county officials and by some municipal officials in the county are unfounded.
“It’s too silly for words,” Lawson said. “The county should not be engaged in such divisive behavior.”
Lawson said she kept her name on the June primary ballot to give the Democrats time to find a replacement candidate against Trenton resident Fred Ehrlenbach, the declared Republican in the race. Antonio Blasi, who lives in the town of Hancock, is expected to represent the Democratic Party in the general election race for Lawson’s seat in November, she said.
Aside from Joy and Lawson, the only elected Hancock County official whose term is up for renewal this year is Cousins, the registrar of probate. Attempts Friday to contact Cousins and Curtis, the registrar of deeds, for comment were unsuccessful.
Eldridge, the county’s part-time elected treasurer, said Friday that there’s “no trust” between the commissioners and other department heads, which include other elected officials. She said her concerns go beyond Roy’s role in county government — the county should reduce its number of employees and perhaps consolidate services with other counties, she said — but she added that Roy “doesn’t help things any.”
Eldridge said trying to raise her concerns with the commissioners is “a waste of time.” Very few people attend county commissioner meetings, she said, and the ad was an attempt to get their attention.
“I think the public should take an interest,” Eldridge said.
The sheriff said Friday that he and other county officials decided to publish the ad because they have raised multiple complaints about Roy, to no avail, since before word got out that Roy allegedly had mishandled funds for the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board and for the Maine Republican Party.
“We believe Phil Roy should not be employed by the county,” Clark said. “[The commissioners] keep giving him glowing endorsements.”
Clark said a December 2010 state supreme court ruling illustrates some of the poor decisions commissioners have made since Roy came on board. In that case, the county was taken to court after it refused to pay two new employees a combined total of less than $100 in overtime. A Superior Court judge sided with the county, but that decision later was overturned by the Law Court.
Clark said the commissioners’ initial refusal to pay the approximate $100 in overtime ended up costing the county “thousands of dollars.”
He said the relationship between commissioners and other county officials has deteriorated so much since Roy was hired in January 2009 that he doesn’t think the ad could aggravate the situation.
“I have no other recourse,” Clark said. “We’re at our wits’ end.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.