A bill that would have created more oversight of Maine’s county sheriffs died in the Legislature this week.
The bill, which was defeated Thursday after the House voted it down, would have allowed the governor to put on administrative leave sheriffs who are suspected of criminal or unethical behavior. Under the Maine Constitution, only the governor can remove an elected sheriff, and there is no way to temporarily remove one under investigation.
Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, introduced the bill after the Bangor Daily News published a 2020 investigative series that examined the lack of accountability of Maine sheriffs.
The bill’s defeat came more than a month after the Maine Sheriffs’ Association pulled its support, which Keim criticized Wednesday in a Senate floor speech.
“Let’s be clear about where the opposition to this oversight comes from,” Keim said. “It stems, of course, from the 16 politically powerful men who do not want oversight, and maybe a few others who aspire to their position.”
In March, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, who is also head of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, testified in support of an earlier version of the bill, which required county commissioners to go to the courts before asking the governor to place a sheriff on administrative leave.
But in late April, the association pulled its support, saying it had constitutional concerns regarding a change that would have allowed the governor to suspend a sheriff if the majority of a county’s commissioners filed a complaint. The committee’s legal analyst and a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office rejected the sheriff’s argument that the new bill raised constitutional issues.
On the floor of the Senate Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitellii, D-Arrowsic, read from a letter she received from Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry opposing the bill.
“Maine sheriffs more than any other entity embrace the concept of accountability of sheriffs,” Vitelli read. “We stand by our original language, we believe it establishes greater accountability while taking into consideration the Maine Constitution.”