BAR HARBOR, Maine — There currently is only one full-time, permanent police chief serving on Mount Desert Island, and according to officials from the island’s four towns, that might be the case for a long time to come.
For the past year, since former Bar Harbor police Chief Nathan Young was placed on leave and then fired, the towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert have been sharing indefinitely the services of James Willis, who has been the police chief in Mount Desert for the past 11 years. Starting last November, Willis also has had the title of Acting Police Chief for Bar Harbor on his resume.
And now that David Chapais has retired from his job as police chief in Southwest Harbor, that town also is curious about the idea of sharing a chief with its neighbors. But Don Lagrange, Southwest Harbor’s town manager, said it is in no hurry.
Lagrange said Wednesday that, since Chapais retired on Oct. 17, Lt. Mike Miller has been acting chief of the Southwest Harbor Police Department. The town is content for that to continue indefinitely, Lagrange said, while it waits to see if Bar Harbor and Mount Desert might implement a formal, long-term police chief sharing agreement.
“We want to see what happens over there,” Lagrange said of the eastern MDI towns. “We’re going to let Bar Harbor and Mount Desert do their thing.”
Cornell Knight, town manager for Bar Harbor, said this week that the current interim chief-sharing agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert is scheduled to expire at the end of the year but that it likely will continue beyond that. He has only been Bar Harbor’s town manager for a few weeks, he said, but he has not heard of any problems or complaints about the sharing agreement.
“There is interest on the part of both towns to extend that,” Knight said.
If the arrangement seems to still be working at the end of 2015, he added, the two towns likely would discuss a more permanent, multi-year agreement.
Durlin Lunt, Mount Desert’s town manager, said Friday that he believes the sharing arrangement has benefited both towns. He said that as a next step, the two towns plan on setting some goals, which he did not specify, for Willis in managing both departments over the next year.
If Willis can effectively reach those goals, rather than just continue to manage the separate departments as they functioned prior to his overseeing them, that would indicate that a longer, multi-year arrangement would be effective, Lunt said.
Lunt added that the general pros and cons of sharing a police chief — or the idea of completely combining the departments — mirrors the arguments he heard in the late 1960s when the four towns on MDI were debating whether to merge their four high schools into one. Only back then, he said, some criticized the consolidation as “a communist plot.”
Because drastic change can make people uncomfortable, Lunt said, the two towns are taking a slow approach.
“We’re proceeding cautiously,” the Mount Desert manager said. “This is not a runaway freight train.”
Willis declined this week to comment on his role as chief for both towns, directing questions instead to the town managers. But Willis, who also serves as president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he is not the only police chief in Maine to serve two municipalities at once.
Theodore Short, a former commander for Troop A of Maine State Police, is the police chief for both Kittery and Eliot. Contacted Thursday, Short said the two-year old arrangement has worked out well for the two York County towns, which have shared dispatching services for several years.
He said that the two communities and boards of selectmen have been supportive and that he doesn’t see it as having two different jobs. It’s similar to when he served 15 towns as a Maine State Police troop commander, he said, only now he is serving two.
Before he started overseeing the two departments, the two towns together were spending $170,000 on police chief salaries, according to Short. Now, as chief of both towns, he earns $110,000 a year, and there has been no increase in secondary command salaries. Each town has one police lieutenant, just as they did before they shared a chief, he said.
“Consolidation at the management level is something that can work,” Short said. “I answer to two town managers [but] I have found it to not be difficult at all.”
The fourth town on MDI, Tremont, is the only one of the four that does not have its own police department. Dana Reed, interim town manager for Tremont, said Thursday that the town has a contract to be patrolled 30 hours each week by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. When a police call comes in outside of those 30 hours during which a deputy is in Tremont, he said, either the sheriff’s department or Maine State Police sends an officer from off island to respond.
Reed said the possibility of the whole island eventually sharing a single island-wide police department has come up at recent meetings of the MDI League of Towns. The group, which includes some nearby towns off MDI, meets every month to discuss topics of mutual interest such as waste disposal, the seasonal Island Explorer bus system or Hancock County government.
Reed said Tremont most likely would wait and see what Southwest Harbor does, if anything, before deciding whether it wants to look closely at sharing police services with the rest of the island. And that, he added, would probably be many years down the road.