April 08, 2020

Three sheriff candidates revisit issues

MACHIAS – Thursday evening’s three-way debate among candidates for the Washington County sheriff’s position brought out both differences and agreements in a 90-minute forum at the University of Maine at Machias.

One hopeful thinks the current crop of sheriff’s deputies should be working harder. Two don’t want to see a methadone clinic in towns without 24-hour policing. And all three recognize that the northern tier of Washington County should have better coverage.

Democrat George Bunker of Baileyville, Republican Rodney Merritt of East Machias and independent Donnie Smith of Lubec each gave his views on how the agency could shape up, if he were elected sheriff on Nov. 7.

Questions came from moderator Jon Reisman, a UMM professor; Ruth Leubecker, a freelance journalist; and several of the nearly 100 people who crowded the room.

The three talked on topics that had come up just a week ago when they all appeared at a Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce forum in Machias.

Bunker, a former deputy, a former state legislator and a private investigator the last 12 years, tossed out statistics on the caseloads of his two opponents, both of whom work as deputies under the retiring sheriff, Joseph Tibbetts.

Merritt talked about his six years serving as a D.A.R.E. officer in schools and how getting hugs from students, years later, made for “the best job he ever had.”

Smith outlined how he would uphold standards for physical fitness and random testing for both drug and alcohol abuse within the department.

They all talked about a redistribution of patrol deputies that would allow officers to better know the communities they are aligned with.

They all had suggestions for improved policing in general.

Smith, who oversees the agencies’ canine program, thought that inmates at the Washington County Jail could develop self-respect by working alongside dogs.

“If the county had a holding facility for animals [involved in special cases], the inmates could run it,” he said.

Bunker said the first thing he would do as sheriff would be to inspect Department of Corrections officials.

“I would ask for a full inspection of the Sheriff’s Department” and start improvements from there, seeking advice from those outside the agency, Bunker noted.

Merritt said the new sheriff needs to reach out to the ordinary residents of Washington County, even in Danforth on the line with Aroostook County.

“When a deputy goes there, sometimes it’s like the ice cream truck coming to town because they are happy to see us,” he said.

All of them supported a plan – first put forward by Smith in an earlier debate – that would set up a community advisory board.

“Between phone calls and e-mails since I first talked about it, I know of probably 150 people who would like to be part of that,” Smith said.

Having met now twice in debates and a third time in a breakfast forum this month, the candidates will go their separate ways until the election.

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