MACHIAS, Maine — An in-depth profile on Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith published by the Bangor Daily News a little over a year ago referred to him as “the most controversial law enforcement figure in Maine.”
Now, a retired state trooper is trying to capitalize on Smith’s reputation for contentiousness in an effort to unseat Smith in the race for sheriff that will be decided in the Nov. 4 election.
Smith, 61, an independent who lives in Lubec, is seeking re-election to a third term in the position that oversees 40 employees — 10 in patrol and 30 running the county jail. He is being challenged by Republican Barry Curtis, 60, of Cherryfield.
Smith remains no stranger to controversy. He publicly criticized the state police nearly a year ago, contending they wanted to reduce the number of troopers patrolling the county. Earlier this year the county commissioners hired an attorney to investigate allegations the sheriff’s office was involved in political activity. And just last week, a woman he arrested and charged with assaulting him filed a notice of intent to sue him, claiming he used excessive force and falsely arrested her.
“I wear this job on my sleeve, I can tell you that,” Smith said when interviewed recently about his re-election bid. “Sometimes it’s detrimental to me. It’s detrimental to my health.
“I don’t make any apologies for high standards,” Smith added.
Despite a reputation for tangling with other officials, Smith has demonstrated he has public support by virtue of winning elections twice. He got 44 percent of the vote in a three-way contest in his first face-off and easily won his second election with 69 percent in 2010.
Smith holds an associate degree in criminal justice from Concordia College, according to his resume, which includes an extensive list of training courses he took in the military and during his law enforcement career.
Smith was a truck driver for a couple of years after he served six years in the Marines. He then was employed as a deputy sheriff in Washington County for a few years. He went on to do a couple of stints as a police officer for Machias sandwiched around a few years working as a security officer at the Navy communications station in Cutler. He got out of law enforcement and operated his own trucking business for 12 years before returning to work as a deputy for the sheriff’s office in 1998. He was promoted to sergeant in 2001 and has been serving as sheriff since 2007.
In discussing his service as sheriff, Smith points to his efforts to rein in spending, high rates for clearing or solving crimes, and partnering with other law enforcement agencies. He is quick to credit his staff.
“I just feel the agency has come around,” said Smith. “I have very professional people working for me that I am very, very proud of.”
His office has done a particularly outstanding job the past two years, Smith said, “because of the dedication I have from my people.”
“Since my tenure, we’ve continually cut the budget,” Smith said.
He trimmed spending by $11,000 in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and it already has been approved by the county’s budget committee. “I think that’s very important for people to know,” he said. At the same time, he was able to add two positions for a detective and a drug agent.
He has been forced to cut several positions at the county jail the past two years, however, because of level state funding, Smith said.
The department was recognized in two recent years for having the highest crime clearance rates and has continued to enjoy success in solving crimes, Smith said.
Smith said he has a “great working relationship” with the Maine State Police and the two agencies have a “phenomenal” agreement to share resources and provide patrol coverage throughout the county. Under the agreement, if a trooper or deputy calls in sick, for example, other personnel are asked to fill in. The arrangement has saved about $90,000 in overtime costs in recent years, according to Smith. His office also enjoys a close working relationship, he said, with the federal Department of Homeland Security as well as the Coast Guard, which have provided some funds for the sheriff’s office.
A lot of heroin is being brought into Washington County, Smith said. “We may not catch everybody, but we’re certainly going to put people on notice and put pressure on it,” he said.
Smith pointed to two recent, successful drug busts for heroin that came about because of tips from citizens. Those kinds of tips from people are very important in solving drug crimes and other cases, he noted. “I’ve always said, I can’t do this alone,” Smith said, “and if I think I can, I’ll fail.
“We’ve done a great job here,” said Smith.
“It’s about the people, not me,” he quickly added.
Curtis is quick to contrast himself with Smith. “Basically, I think I’m a better diplomat than the sheriff is right now,” he said. Curtis gets along with other people, and they “get along with me,” he said.
Curtis retired from the Maine State Police in 2010 and has since been involved in an oyster business, 4Cs DownEast Oysters in Brooksville, with his brothers and father.
Curtis was a trooper for the Maine State Police for 25 years. He worked out of the Orono barracks in his first 10 years, then he lived in Cherryfield and worked in Hancock and Washington counties in his last 15 years.
As a trooper, Curtis was an instructor for various training programs and oversaw field training of new troopers. He received additional training to provide protection and security for senior public officials and performed such work.
“I feel I can do a lot better job as far as handling other departments and trying to bring everybody back together, working together,” Curtis said. “I think you can get a bigger bang for your buck if everyone’s working for the same goals.
“He doesn’t really want to work with other departments,” Curtis said, referring to Smith.
“He’s had his problems with the state police, just like he has other departments. … He may think he has a good relationship with them,” but Curtis contends there is tension between the two law enforcement agencies. “It could run a lot smoother,” he said.
He wants to focus on fighting drugs, increasing cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, community relations and reducing outstanding warrants, Curtis said. “There’s plenty to do.”
One of the county’s biggest law enforcement problems is illegal drug use, Curtis said. “It seems to be running amok. … Something has got to be done about that situation [to] get the drugs out of Washington County.”
At a recent meeting of the Machias Rotary Club, Curtis said he “probably” would move to replace Chris Donahue, whom Smith only recently appointed as chief deputy.
When Curtis was interviewed, however, he backpedaled from that statement, saying, “I don’t know. … I’ll look [at Donahue] … and see what happens.”
Curtis acknowledged he lacks experience directing a department with 40 employees and a budget exceeding $3 million and said he will need to rely on subordinates for their expertise. “I realize that I’ve got a lot to learn,” he said.