Piscataquis Robin Hoods

Posted Nov. 23, 2010, at 5:38 p.m.

The unusual conflict between Piscataquis County commissioners and Sheriff John Goggin illustrates the anachronistic, problematic nature of county law enforcement. It is more evidence that county government is neither fish nor fowl, often failing at being responsive to strictly local needs, yet also not rising to manage regional problems.

County commissioners are responsible for drafting the annual county budget, the largest share of which is devoted to county law enforcement and corrections. Though Sheriff John Goggin was elected in a countywide vote, his salary is set by commissioners. Last week, commissioners decided to cut the sheriff’s salary by $9,710, saying the move was a way to “align his pay to the level of his performance.” This week, the sheriff’s supporters rallied and told commissioners they believed the board’s muscle-flexing was in bad form. Whether the board’s pay cut move was legal or not may be decided in court.

The Magna Carta, adopted by King John on June 15, 1215, is a precursor to the U.S. Constitution and other governing documents. It refers to sheriffs early in the text: “If we have given the guardianship of the land to a sheriff, or to any person answerable to us for the revenues, and he commits de-struction or damage, we will exact compensation from him.”

Though the standoff between commissioners and the sheriff hardly rises to the level of mythology, it does recall the English legend of Robin Hood. The many versions of the legend, which date to the time of the Magna Carta, typically pit the fair-minded Robin Hood against the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. Sheriffs in the English system at that time were empowered by the king. The infamous Sheriff of Nottingham may have been based on a real sheriff who was commanded by the king to oversee law enforcement for a larger area. This sort of absentee oversight may have rankled the locals.

The Maine county sheriff can be traced directly to the Magna Carta and, perhaps, to Robin Hood. But nowhere else in our system of government is a law enforcement officer elected. The commissioner of Maine’s public safety department is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The department then hires state police officers on a merit basis. Municipalities also hire police chiefs on a competitive, merit basis, and they in turn hire officers. Only at the county level is the top law enforcement officer essentially a politician.

During a meeting this week, the sheriff noted that his job performance had never been evaluated by commissioners, nor had any other sheriff in Maine. “So what gives you the right to evaluate me?” he asked.

It may be time to revamp this system so commissioners hire the sheriff and can raise or lower his or her salary, and terminate his or her employment as needed.

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