March 29, 2020

Sheriffs’ group backs law in disputed race

Two deputies who are running for their boss’ job don’t have to resign their commission now that the Maine Sheriff’s Association has reviewed the law, MSA officials said Thursday.

Former legislator George Bunker, D-Kossuth, who is in a three-way race for Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts job, raised the issue last week. Tibbetts is not seeking re-election.

Neither of the other two candidates, Cpl. Rodney Merritt, R-East Machias, and Sgt. Donnie Smith, I-Lubec, agreed with Bunker’s interpretation of the law when contacted last week.

And neither does Robert S. Howe, executive director of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. “I’ve taken another look at the statute and I’ve talked with three sheriffs and we’re convinced that Bunker is misreading the intent of the law,” Howe said Thursday.

Bunker said Howe had a right to his opinion. “Bob’s a lobbyist, he’s paid by the Maine Sheriff’s Association, so he can have any opinion he wishes,” Bunker said Thursday.

But the two deputies could be in violation of the county’s own operating policy, a policy that hasn’t been revamped in years.

Last week Bunker raised the issue of Tibbetts’ right to endorse a candidate for sheriff. That theory was quickly shot down by the Attorney General’s office.

Bunker then raised the issue of deputies running for the sheriff’s job.

The race is one of the most backbiting in the state and in the past few weeks has involved allegations of impropriety among the candidates.

Bunker said last week he had informed Smith and Merritt that state law was clear and if they didn’t resign their positions as deputies they’d be in violation of it. He quoted MRSA 30-A, subsection 355 as the basis for his argument.

The former legislator said when he served in the state House of Representatives in 1995 he helped change the law to allow deputies and the sheriff to run in nonpartisan elections such as school committees or for the board of selectmen.

But, he said, he read the existing law to mean that deputies could not run for sheriff. If Bunker had been correct, that would have meant that deputies who have ran or are now running for their boss’ top job would be in violation of the law.

But even if the law doesn’t support his position, Bunker said that department’s own policy did.

The former legislator and deputy raised it at an “Eggs and Issues” event Thursday morning for the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Merritt and Smith were there.

Bunker passed copies of the county policy to reporters before describing to the crowd of 45 how he asked Tibbetts for a copy on Wednesday.

The policy, called “Conflict of Interest,” was signed on May 1, 1991, by then-sheriff John Crowley. Crowley is now one of the Washington County commissioners.

The portion of the policy that rankled Bunker reads: “Deputies and employees who become candidates for salaried elective office shall take a leave of absence without pay. Such leave shall encompass both the campaign and the tenure of office if elected.”

He noted that the sheriff acknowledged having just a single copy that is kept in his office.

“Tibbetts said that he is working on updating the policy,” Bunker said. “But there is not one officer in this room who knows what’s in this document.”

That much is true, both Merritt and Smith agreed.

“The fact that the only person in the sheriff’s department who has a copy of the policy, is the sheriff, shows you what’s wrong,” Smith said. “This is the first time I have seen that.”

Merritt also said he would like to have seen the policy. “I’m not here to defend the present administration,” he said by way of introduction. “There are some differences between us. In most cases we agree on things, but there are some key differences.”

Asked about the county policy on Thursday, Tibbetts, who did not attend the meeting, said there were four copies but now there was only one. “That I keep under lock and key,” he said.

Although he said he had planned to redo the policy, it’s not something he’s gotten to. “For the last four years we have been doing nothing but policing and actually running the department. Should it be revised? You’re darn right it should. But due to other priorities and I admit, some procrastination, we didn’t get to it,” he added.

He also questioned the constitutionality of that section. “I chose not to enforce it,” he said.

Tibbetts noted when he ran for Crowley’s job, he was the county’s chief deputy at the time and no one questioned it, not even Crowley.

He said he felt that if the policy were enforced it would keep good people from running for office.

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