BAR HARBOR, Maine — After two years of sharing a police chief on a short-term basis, two neighboring towns on Mount Desert Island decided last month to continue the arrangement for another year.
Town managers in Bar Harbor and Mount Desert said last week that sharing the services of police Chief James Willis has worked out well for the abutting municipalities. Each also said that, after the new one-year agreement is up, they likely will renew the arrangement for a multiyear term.
“We are very pleased with it,” Cornell Knight, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said.
Willis, the police chief in Mount Desert since 2003, also has been overseeing the Bar Harbor police department since former Bar Harbor police Chief Nathan Young was placed on paid leave in the fall of 2013, then fired the following January. The Bar Harbor Town Council voted Dec. 15 to continue the chief-sharing agreement while the Mount Desert selectmen approved the one-year extension Dec. 21.
Such police chief-sharing arrangements are rare in Maine but not unheard of. The York County towns of Kittery and Eliot have shared the services of Chief Theodore Short, a former commander for Troop A of Maine State Police, since 2012.
With Willis overseeing police departments in Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, the two towns have upgraded their mutual aid agreement so officers from either department can perform routine patrols in the abutting town, according to officials, which has helped reduce response times by enabling the departments in each town to coordinate their patrol schedules.
Increased collaboration and interchangeability between the two police departments also has helped reduce overtime expenses. If an officer from one town picks up an entire shift in the neighboring town, the town where the officer patrols reimburses the other town for that shift.
The two towns also are sharing the services of an administrative assistant, who has assumed some of the supervisory officers’ paperwork duties, which in turn has freed them up to spend more time responding to and investigating complaints. Aside from the police chief and administrative assistant positions, the two police departments continue to be separately funded by the two towns.
Durlin Lunt, Mount Desert’s town manager, said Monday that the sharing agreement has enabled the towns to reduce the use of part-time and reserve officers, which can pose challenges for scheduling and training. The departments also have been aligning their policies, equipment and procedures so they match, which should help to further streamline collaboration and efficiency, he added.
“After this year, we may look at making [the next sharing agreement] a little longer,” Lunt said.
Other towns in the area also have been looking to reduce their law enforcement administrative burden. Swan’s Island decided last summer to shelve its police department and instead contract with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department to have a deputy permanently assigned to patrol the island. Tremont, also located on MDI, has long gone without its own police department and instead has relied on alternating law enforcement coverage by the sheriff’s office and Maine State Police.
In Southwest Harbor, Alan Brown, a former detective with the sheriff’s department and Republican candidate for sheriff, has been the town’s police chief since last fall. He assumed command of the department from former Acting Chief Mike Miller, who filled in following the retirement of former Chief David Chapais in the fall of 2014. Miller continues to work for the department as a lieutenant.
When Chapais retired, Willis already was overseeing the police departments in Mount Desert and Bar Harbor. Don Lagrange, Southwest Harbor’s town manager, said at the time that Southwest Harbor was interested in whether Bar Harbor and Mount Desert might reach a long-term agreement to share a police chief. Southwest Harbor could decide it also wants in on the sharing agreement, Lagrange said, but it was in no hurry to do so.
Brown said Monday that, when he was interviewed for the job last summer, Southwest Harbor officials told him their long-term goal was to work toward not just sharing a police chief with other towns but eventually to establish an island-wide police department. How long that may take, however, is unclear, Brown added.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Brown said of one day having one police department to serve all of MDI. The new chief, who used to work with Willis when they both worked for the sheriff’s department, said Willis has done a “hell of a job” overseeing and coordinating the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert law enforcement agencies.
In the meantime, Brown said, he is getting used to the administrative duties of being a police chief and is looking to hire a full-time officer. The department has four full-time patrol positions, not including his own, he added, and “always” is looking to hire part-time and reserve or as-needed officers to help make sure patrol shifts are filled.
Lagrange said Monday he is confident Brown will make the town’s police department one of the best in the area. He also said that, if the towns on MDI do eventually set up one island-wide department, Brown will be able to help bring it to fruition.
But Lagrange noted it could be many years before such a thing becomes a reality. This was the case before MDI towns agreed to form an island-wide high school in the 1960s, he said, and has been the case about possibly establishing an island-wide middle school as well.
“I’m sure eventually it will happen,” Lagrange said of merging the island’s police departments. “It’s not an overnight situation. It’s a very lengthy process.”