ELLSWORTH — After many months of discussion, and after gathering several legal opinions on the subject, the Hancock County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the Legislature for a resolve granting them permission to sell the old jail to the Ellsworth Historical Society for one dollar. The society now leases the building, which it uses as office and meeting space, storage, and a museum.
Last fall, the commissioners agreed that they wanted to sell the old county jail, a two-story brick building dating from the 1880s, to the historical society. Deale Salisbury, president of the historical society, says the organization can’t apply for grants to repair the crumbling brickwork on the exterior because it doesn’t own the structure.
But the commissioners discovered that there is no clear statute in Maine’s law books that gives them the right to sell county property. Over the past few months, they have received legal opinions from District Attorney Michael Povich, the state Attorney General’s Office, and local attorney Bronson Platner. Former Judge Herb Silsby, who has been negotiating the agreement on behalf of the historical society, also weighed in with his opinion at Tuesday’s meeting.
The collected opinions, which centered on the interpretation of a relatively obscure statute, did not offer the commissioners any clear consensus on the issue. Linda Pistner of the Attorney General’s Office said it no longer supplies legal opinions, but the office is researching the legislative history for the county.
Platner wrote that in his opinion, the commissioners had the right to deed the jail to the historical society. At the meeting, Povich objected that such an interpretation meant the commissioners could, if they wanted, sell the jail to McDonald’s. Given the vagueness of the law, he advised that the commissioners should either ask the voters via a referendum at the upcoming town meetings, or get a resolve from the Legislature.
“No one’s suggested any clear and unequivocal statute that said the county can sell property,” Silsby said at Tuesday’s meeting. He agreed with Povich that a more cautious approach will protect the county from citizens or future commissioners questioning the sale.
Povich himself was hauled on the carpet for closing his office three times in December without notifying the commissioners. He closed the office on the 26th, and afternoon of the 24th, and the afternoon of the 12th for a staff Christmas party. Povich said he gave his staff the days off in the spirit of the holidays. He also billed the county for part of the party costs.
The commissioners agreed to pay the $45 for renting a suite for the party, but decided that in the future, department heads must notify the commissioners before they take it upon themselves to close a public office.
“The commissioners have the final say and responsibility to keep this building open to the public,” said Dennis Damon, chair of the commissioners. Povich replied that his staff were available via pagers and cell phones, and that most of the office’s business involves law enforcement officers and other lawyers, not the general public.
“I really don’t have a lot of remorse,” said Povich. “I think a Christmas party is a work-related event.”