The Eastport City Council has voted 4-1 to reinstate Peter Harris back to his job as the local police chief after he was terminated by the city manager last fall, but Harris is not sure he wants the job back.
Harris, who has been working for the Pleasant Point Police Department since he was fired in September by City Manager Thomas Hoskins, said Thursday that he plans to tell city officials on Friday afternoon if he will accept the offer. He said he was glad he got to make his case directly to the council and was pleased with the council vote, which was held on Jan. 4.
“It released a lot of weight from my shoulders,” Harris said. “The people of Eastport have been very supportive. They understand I would need time to think this over.”
Harris said that Hoskins fired him because of a simple personality disagreement between the two men. He said the department in Maine’s smallest city was chronically understaffed, which made it difficult to run, and that Hoskins’ demands aggravated the situation. Harris told the weekly Quoddy Tides newspaper that Hoskins felt it was too hard to contact the police and insisted Harris and other officers check in with him at city hall three times a day.
“Mr. Hoskins went out of his way to make my life difficult,” Harris said. “I believe he was abusing his authority.”
Hoskins did not respond to a message left for him Thursday at City Hall.
Harris became the department’s interim chief in the spring of 2020 and then was appointed as full chief about a month later, he said. He had been a part-time officer for about a decade before he became a full-time officer with Eastport in 2018.
The department should have one chief and four full-time patrol officers, Harris said, but he had only two full-time officers working for him when he was chief. He was unable to fill the other positions and had trouble finding available reserve officers, some of whom work full-time for other departments that will not allow them to work outside freelance shifts while the COVID-19 pandemic is unchecked.
Hiring “is really hard when a department has a reputation of being unstable,” Harris said, alluding to high turnover that, according to the Quoddy Tides newspaper, has resulted in nine different police chiefs in Eastport in the past 10 years.
In the 11 months leading up to his termination, Harris said he put in nearly 4,000 hours of work trying to keep the department functioning, but still he had a hard time keeping up with mandated paperwork.
“[Police officers] can’t be on the road all shift and then be a chief, too,” Harris said. “It’s too much.”
William Boone, president of the City Council, said Thursday that he felt Hoskins’ decision to fire Harris was unjustified, and that a warning to Harris to do a better job filling shifts and completing paperwork would have been sufficient.
It has been a challenge to fund the department at a level that makes the pay competitive with other area law enforcement agencies, he said, but a certain amount of turnover is normal. Keeping positions filled is a challenge for police departments throughout Maine, he said.
“It’s been an issue for city managers, too,” Boone added, noting that Eastport has had five different city managers since 2010.
Boone said he hopes Harris decides to return as chief. Finding a different qualified candidate to take the job likely would be difficult, he said.
“I’m hopeful things can work out,” Boone said.