AUGUSTA — Two weeks ago while Gov. Angus S. King inspected the wrath of Ice Storm ’98 with Vice President Al Gore in Auburn, he stopped to ask a city cop to sum up the character of Lewiston Police Chief Michael Kelly in 10 seconds.
“He said, `They don’t come any better,”‘ recalled the governor.
King hopes members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee and the Maine Senate will share the officer’s assessment of Kelly, who was nominated Monday as the governor’s new choice to head the Department of Public Safety. The 42-year-old Plymouth (N.H.) State College graduate rose through the ranks over a 20-year career in Lewiston to oversee operations in Maine’s second-largest city police department.
Kelly is King’s second nominee to the post which was filled by retired Maine State Police Col. Alfred Skofield during the governor’s first term. King chose last year to return to a system balanced between a Maine State Police chief and Department of Public Safety commissioner after Skolfield convinced him the demands of both jobs were better served by separate department heads.
Bangor Police Chief Randy Harriman was King’s first choice to head the department, but the governor withdrew the nomination amid unfounded rumors of domestic abuse cited in an anonymous letter. King later spoke of a “lack of candor” in Harriman that made him uncomfortable with the Bangor chief.
Like Harriman, Kelly learned police work from the bottom up. King was impressed with the way the nominee had streamlined the management of the Lewiston department and reorganized work assignments to cut overtime costs.
“He has come in the last three years with a consistent high level of service without any budget increases,” King said. “He has also been a leader in coordinating the 911 system between Auburn and Lewiston. Consolidated dispatch and administrative functions is one of my pet subjects. Mike Kelly is the head of a 911 system that has brought those two departments together.”
“Most of our successes have been through collaborative efforts,” Kelly told reporters. “That’s my operating philosophy and I’ll try to instill that type of culture within the Department of Public Safety.”
The governor said Kelly was actually “the first runner-up” four months ago when Harriman was named as the nominee to the law enforcement post. The Bangor chief brought impressive credentials in the field of computer programming that King found desirable.
“It was one of those things that could have gone either way, and it went that [Harriman’s] way,” he said. “Since then, Mike has been the leading candidate. The decision was very close and I could have easily chosen either one.”
King said “given the circumstances of the prior nominee,” he wanted to be sure Kelly underwent a thorough background check. He said nothing of any consequence arose, with the exception of Kelly’s decision to maintain a relationship with a long-time family friend whom he helped to arrest and convict on drug charges. Some people, King said, might question whether a police chief should maintain a friendship with a convicted drug offender.
“Our investigation concluded that Mike Kelly is human and in my determination that is not something that should bar someone from leadership or from public office,” he said.
Kelly said the relationship was “an affair of the heart” and that he had helped keep the drug offender from falling back into bad habits.
“This person has had a hard life and I felt that through virtue of my position and my experiences in life, I could at least mentor him through the hard times after he had paid his dues,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s name was posted before the Legislature Monday. The State and Local Government Committee must vote to approve the nomination. Kelly then faces a confirmation vote by the Maine Senate. If confirmed, he would oversee operations for the Maine State Police, State Fire Marshal’s Office, State Liquor Enforcement, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, Capitol Security, the Bureau of Emergency Communications and Maine Emergency Medical Services.