Chief share plan panned



 

MOUNT DESERT — Several of the more than two dozen residents who attended an informal public hearing here Monday night expressed skepticism about the wisdom of sharing a police chief with Bar Harbor on a permanent basis.

A few others said they were strongly opposed.

When board of selectmen chairman John Macauley asked how many in the audience supported the idea, only one hand went up.

Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis has been serving as acting chief in Bar Harbor since last November. The chief-sharing agreement, which was revised this summer, runs through December. Officials in both towns have expressed interest in making the arrangement permanent, saying it could promote cooperation and efficiency.

But none of those who spoke at the forum Monday night were buying it. Among them was Bob Pyle, retired director of the Northeast Harbor Public Library and longtime fire department volunteer.

“I am opposed unalterably to the proposal to share a police chief because I know from experience that these municipalities have different cultures and I know … that the ultimate outcome of sharing the police chief will be sharing the department,” he said. “That is the next step. It is the elephant in the room, and I vote against the elephant.”

Macauley, Town Manager Durlin Lunt and others emphasized that the issue before the two towns now is simply whether to share a police chief, not whether to combine the police departments.

“This gives you the opportunity to try some things at a relatively low risk compared to moving forward with a full-fledged merger,” Lunt said. But he questioned whether having separate departments is “sustainable over time.”

“If we were to design a law enforcement protocol for Mount Desert Island from scratch, would we design what we have now?” he asked. “It’s going to be very difficult to go it alone and maintain the type and level of services that people expect over the next decade or two.”

Lunt said that if sharing a police chief turns out not to work well for one or both towns, “it’s very easy to end the relationship.”

Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender said the number one consideration should be whether sharing a police chief or merging departments would improve service.

“I’m not totally convinced this is going to benefit the customers in this community,” he said. “To me, it looks like one community [Bar Harbor] has more to benefit than the other.”

Lunt and Chief Willis said that sharing a police chief could make it easier to recruit and retain officers to serve in Mount Desert. It is difficult to do that now, Chief Willis said, in part because it is such a quiet town.

“So, the young officers we hire tend to go on to places like Bar Harbor, the sheriff’s department or state or federal agencies,” he said.

Another obstacle is the lack of opportunity for advancement.

“Right now, the opportunity for growth here is non-existent,” Chief Willis said.

Tom Walker, a career federal law enforcement officer who retired from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said, “I don’t see a problem that needs to be fixed.

“Mount Desert has a good community police force. I’m sure the officers pretty much know the community, know who the people are and how to deal with different individuals. Whereas, if we go island-wide, the officers are going to lose the local knowledge.”

If the two police departments were to merge, Walker said, “I guarantee you that the town of Mount Desert will get the personality of the Bar Harbor police department because they are bigger. We will lose the Mount Desert culture.”

Former selectman Ernest Coombs also expressed opposition.

“I think the town of Mount Desert needs a police chief, and probably Bar Harbor does,” he said. “Probably we should both go our own ways for a few more years or a lot more years.”

Under the current chief-sharing agreement, Bar Harbor covers 60 percent of the cost of the chief’s salary and benefits and Mount Desert pays 40 percent. That division roughly reflects the amount of time he spends working for each town.

Officials of both towns say the sharing of a police chief could lead to efficiencies in the future, but would not save either town money in the short term. In fact, costs could go up somewhat initially because of the need to hire support personnel.

Several residents asked whether the job of running two police departments is too much for one person.

“I’m certainly working longer days and carrying more work home, but it’s way more comfortable than it was the first six months,” the chief said. “It’s becoming more manageable because we’re beginning to do things [in Bar Harbor] the way I like to do them. And if you decide to continue this [chief sharing arrangement], I’m going to ask both managers to make some changes in terms of administrative support to make it more manageable, not just for me, but for all of us.”

Chief Willis noted that he has delegated more administrative duties in Mount Desert to Lt. Kevin Edgecomb and Sgt. Leigh Guildford. In response to a question about whether the chief is able to spend enough time with the officers in Mount Desert, Sgt. Guildford said, “If we need him, I’ve never had to search for him. Lt. Edgecomb and I have been allowed to do a lot more things this summer than we have before, and we’ve enjoyed it.”

Lunt was asked at the public hearing if sharing has put undue pressure on the Mount Desert department.

“The number of calls I took this summer on shared law enforcement you could count on one hand and subtract five digits,” he said. “So, if there was pressure, it certainly didn’t come to me. I tend to hear if things are going poorly.”

Selectman Martha Dudman said, “I think many people here are frightened that we are going to lose something of our town. But as Durlin said, no one has complained … We haven’t noticed a significant change.”

Pyle responded, “I think we’ve been quiet because we believed this was temporary. I’m here because I believe you’re trying to make it more permanent.”

Chief Willis said that if the chief-sharing arrangement is made permanent, his primary goal would continue to be to provide citizens with the same or better service.

“If I didn’t think I could do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here telling [the selectmen] that I would participate in this,” he said.

Attending the hearing were Bar Harbor’s new town manager, Cornell Knight, along with town council chairman Paul Paradis and council members David Bowden and Peter St. Germain.

Asked if the council wants to continue sharing a police chief, Paradis said, “We have not made a decision one way or the other. We’re seeing how this works and whether this is the path forward. I think this has a potential for improving service.”

Paradis said that if Bar Harbor residents aren’t interested in sharing a chief with Mount Desert, “Then we start looking for a police chief.”

Macauley said he thinks the chief-sharing arrangement has worked “remarkably well” so far.

“Our first responsibility is to the town,” he said. “If at any time this does not look like it’s working or serving the town, it won’t last.”

Lunt said it’s time for the towns on the island to look at which services might best be shared and which ones should remain separate. “I hope we’re never afraid to look at the possibilities,” he said.

Southwest Harbor Town Manager Don Lagrange also attended but did not speak. Southwest Harbor Police Chief Dave Chapais is retiring effective Oct. 17. Lagrange has expressed interest in the possibility of having a single chief for the three police departments on Mount Desert Island.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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