Maine’s highest court sides with Hancock County commissioners over sheriff in cruiser reimbursement dispute
ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court decision that dismissed a lawsuit the Hancock County sheriff filed against other county officials.
Sheriff William Clark had filed a civil suit against the commissioners, claiming they overstepped their authority when they tried to recoup $1,000 from a deputy who crashed a cruiser when he was speeding without justification. The $1,000 would have reimbursed the county for the deductible amount of the demolished cruiser that was not covered by the county’s insurance policy.
A Superior Court judge had dismissed Clark’s lawsuit, ruling that the point was moot because the commissioners dropped their efforts to recoup the money from the deputy after the county ended up recovering the $1,000 from the sale of the wrecked cruiser. Justice Kevin Cuddy also denied Clark’s request for the county to pay his legal fees.
The dispute arose after the deputy, Chris Sargent, struck a deer while driving 92 mph on his way home on Route 172 in Ellsworth in the wee hours of Oct. 6, 2011. Sargent, who was unhurt, notified his supervisor of the accident and acknowledged he did not have a reason for driving that fast.
Clark disciplined Sargent, who no longer works for the department, by suspending him without pay for one day and taking him off a waiting list for being assigned a new cruiser.
The sheriff argued the commissioners’ attempt to recoup $1,000 from Sargent amounted to a disciplinary measure, which he said overstepped the bounds of their authority.
Commissioners may have dropped their efforts, he said, but the inquiry amounted to interference in his statutory responsibilities as an elected official. Such actions undermine the sheriff department’s operations because it could cause deputies to be concerned not only with what the sheriff tells them to do as their commanding officer, but with conflicting demands that they may get from the commissioners, he said.
The commissioners contended that they have final say over the county’s finances and that by discussing ways to recoup the deductible cost with the sheriff, they acted well within the parameters of their responsibility.
Clark, who has decided not to seek re-election after having been sheriff for 33 years, has a history of legal disputes with county commissioners.
In 2010, he sued and won when the commissioners refused to pay a combined total of less than $100 in overtime to two new union employees. Eight years before that, the sheriff filed and lost a lawsuit against the commission over its decision to eliminate the assistant administrator position for the county jail.