MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith, livid that he had not been informed or invited to attend an emergency meeting of the county commissioners on Monday, fired off a midnight email to the Washington County board of visitors, some members of the county legislative delegation, the chairman of the commissioners, the county manager and the Washington County district attorney.
In the email, Smith accused the commissioners of being so blinded by an estimated $8.5 million in state funding proposed to expand and renovate the existing courthouse that they are failing to address management problems at the courthouse that he believes affect public safety.
Smith has been an adamant and vocal opponent of the proposed courthouse expansion, which he says will total $12 million. He has frequently stated that the courthouse does not need new courtrooms but rather needs to better manage the two it now has. He said judges are working only 25 hours a week which is the reason that courtrooms are overcrowded and chaotic on court days.
“The Governor told us sheriffs two weeks ago he had no funds to help us with our jail funding,” Smith wrote. “Oh, I guess he forgot about the twelve and a half million dollars for the new courts and bathroom for the judge. Oh yes, and everyone wanted to forget all about the (domestic violence) suspects we had to let go because the judge was too busy going home at (1 p.m.) And all we get is (sic) lame excuses from Augusta, and the delegation is no (sic) where to be found on this issue or any other issue for that matter. Their (sic) too worried about drinking on St. Patrick’s Day and fireworks.”
Smith did not respond to a telephone message or email Tuesday morning seeking more information.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the commissioners, said Tuesday that the special meeting was held the previous day to clarify details about a land lease only and that at no time was it meant to provide a platform for discussion of court management.
Gardner said the signing of the land lease only allowed the process to continue and by no means should be considered a stamp of approval of the project or the expense by the commissioners.
“Signing the lease just allows the process to continue, allows us to remain on the bus. But we can get off the bus at any time,” Gardner said. “Settling a contractual issue is the job of the commissioners, not the sheriff.”
Local and state officials have discussed for decades the need for renovations and possibly expansion of the existing courthouse, which was built in 1854. Some funding was included in the the state budget in 2011 and the remainder of the project’s cost would be financed through bonds.
District Court Judge John Romei has previously called the Washington County Courthouse “the worst facility in the state. On court days you have 100 people all using one unisex bathroom.”
Referring to the courtrooms, Gardner said, “No one here argues that upgrades are needed.” But the commissioner also feels that the offices and spaces used by county employees, such as the registry of deeds and probate court, are sufficient and he has emphasized that it will be up to the state to demonstrate the need for the expansion and renovation.
“There are a lot of decisions left to be made,” Gardner said. “I want to make it very clear that justifying the need for an expansion is more on the state than us. We don’t need it. They do. If we cannot secure that justification, we will not burden the taxpayers of Washington County with additional expense.”
Although the state will be funding the expansion and renovations, the commissioners have repeatedly expressed their concern that the project will result in additional maintenance, ground work, utility costs, and other expenses for the county.
When the Monday meeting was scheduled last week, Gardner made it clear that he wanted to keep the issues of court management and court renovation/expansion separate. He also clarified with state officials that by signing a land lease, the county was not accepting either the project or the funds.
Smith, however, said that if the commissioners approve Washington County taking the courthouse expansion money from the state, they should be ashamed. “This would mean (they) are all more concerned about the judge having his or her private bathroom than the elderly or veterans getting health care,” he wrote. “Have you all lost your minds??? It would be funny if it were not sad.”
Smith vowed to continue to fight against the expansion and renovation because that is what he is hearing from the public.
Gardner said, “The process needs to continue. The people of Washington County deserve a secure, updated courthouse as much as people in the rest of the state. Monday’s decision to sign the land lease is just one part of a continuing conversation that we can step away from at any time.”