MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County sheriff said Monday that his chief deputy was “burnt out” and that the immediate termination of the chief deputy’s employment was by mutual agreement.
Michael St. Louis had served as chief deputy since Donnie Smith was elected sheriff in 2007, Smith said. Without going into detail, he said that St. Louis had been letting some things slide and that insufficient communication between the two men contributed to the decision.
Other Washington County officials indicated over the weekend that St. Louis was informed of the decision on Friday.
Smith said St. Louis was at the sheriff’s office Monday morning collecting personal belongings and that his departure was amicable. He said St. Louis offered to stay in touch to help with the transition.
“I’ve decided we have to go in a different direction,” Smith said. “We go back a long ways. We’re friends.”
Information about St. Louis’ salary and whether he received or was offered a severance package was unavailable Monday.
Attempts Monday afternoon to contact St. Louis were unsuccessful. An outgoing message on St. Louis’ cell phone said he was “not accepting calls at this time.”
Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald did not return calls seeking comment about St. Louis’ employment with the county.
Smith said he has no immediate plans to fill the vacancy. Lt. Travis Willey will help pick up some of St. Louis’ former duties, and the sheriff said he himself will do the same. The sheriff said he hopes eventually to hire a new chief deputy, but not until an investigation into the alleged misuse of a jail inmates’ benefit fund is complete.
The county is preparing to review a Waterville attorney’s investigation into the alleged misappropriation of funds. Smith has contended that the alleged malfeasance could have affected thousands of dollars, and has suspended with pay the top two jail administrators — Capt. Robert Gross, the jail’s longtime supervisor, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk — for the duration of the investigation.
In December, a corrections officer who claimed he was assaulted in October outside the county jail in Machias resigned hours before county commissioners were scheduled to review Smith’s allegation that the officer had staged the attack.
Also last month, a Winter Harbor doctor who had been granted a “special deputy” license by Smith was charged with reckless conduct after he left a loaded handgun in a bathroom at L.L. Bean in Ellsworth. The ID wrongly identified the doctor as a qualified law enforcement officer with the right to carry a concealed weapon, though the doctor was not legally qualified to be identified as such.
Smith said St. Louis’ termination has nothing to do with any of the controversies that have involved his department in recent months.
“I admire his integrity,” Smith said of St. Louis.
St. Louis first worked as a deputy for the county in 1994, left for a couple of years, and then came back to work as a deputy around 2000 or so, Smith said.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, head of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said Monday that sheriffs in Maine have the authority to fire their chief deputies whenever they want, with or without cause.
Ross declined to comment specifically about the situation in Washington County, which withdrew from the sheriffs association a year ago.
Ross said that, in his 34 years in law enforcement, he’s seen some chief deputies retire before the sheriffs they serve under, and some have retired suddenly due to illness or other personal reasons.
He said that, in any county, the sheriff and chief deputy have to work closely together and share the same philosophy for running the law enforcement division.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” he said of sudden departures by chief deputies.
Ross said the sheriffs association does not keep historical records on who serves as sheriff or chief deputy in each county. Counties generally do that on their own, he added.
The Penobscot County sheriff declined to comment on whether “burnout” is an issue that affects law enforcement officers.