Desjardins ending four decades of public service with retirement

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SABATTUS — After nearly 40 years in law enforcement — as a patrol officer, police chief, investigator, chief deputy and sheriff — Guy Desjardins wants the freedom to ease his pace and ignore the telephone.

He wants to rid himself of pressure-filled emails and late-night phone calls.

On Dec. 31, when he concludes his second term as Androscoggin County sheriff, Desjardins says he will happily turn in his county-issued smartphone and begin to relax.

“I won’t have to answer the phone at midnight,” Desjardins said. He might even enjoy being bored for a little while.

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Desjardins, 61, wants to catch his breath.

During his eight years in office, Desjardins became one of the most identifiable sheriffs in the county’s history.

“My accomplishment, to me, was just getting the office of sheriff out there and better known,” Desjardins said.

He had his name painted along the side of his deputy’s cruisers, regularly attended council and selectmen meetings throughout the county’s 14 towns, became an advocate for the county in Augusta and the go-to Guy for constituents with all nature of complaints: from lost dogs and legal woes to neighborhood squabbles and unruly tenants.

“It increased my call volume, there’s no question about it,” Desjardins said Tuesday, clutching a just-purchased flip phone. “It worked. People got to know me. That means a lot in public service. They’ve got to know who the head guy is.”

Desjardins, who grew up in Auburn, didn’t plan to become a police officer or the head guy.

After graduating from Edward Little High School in 1971, he joined the U.S. Air Force. He wanted to see the world. Instead, he saw Aroostook County.

After more than a year working as a cook at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, he finally convinced his chain of command to give him new orders. He was on his way to Vietnam — aboard a plane that had departed Hawaii — when it abruptly turned around. The war had ended.

“While I was in the air, Nixon signed the peace treaty,” Desjardins said. “People thought I was extremely lucky, and I was just disappointed.”

Instead, he was sent back to Loring.

He soon left the Air Force. He joined the reserve. Then, he joined the Maine Army National Guard, eventually serving 19 years.

He returned home. He tried working as a shipbuilder at Bath Iron Works.

“I didn’t want to punch a clock,” he said.

He wanted instead to be a full-time police officer.

While still working at BIW, he went to work as a part-timer for Sabattus. He’d found his niche.

“I loved it,” Desjardins said. “You really, really felt you could make a difference. I lived in the town where I worked. I’ve seen births. I’ve seen people die.”

And he was mentored by the police chief, Lionel Cote.

From Cote, he learned the most important lesson: that the department and the community come first, he said.

“Without it, it isn’t public service,” he said. “You’re in it for yourself.”

After several years as a patrol officer, Desjardins went on to spend more than seven years as the town’s chief. He left in 1988.

“There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think, ‘I wish I’d never left,’” he said. “Even as chief deputy. Even as sheriff.

“It was a really, really good fit for me,” he said.

He left to become a private investigator. After a couple of years, he went to work as a fraud investigator for the state. And in 1995, Androscoggin County Sheriff Ronald Gagnon appointed him as his chief deputy.

He stayed in the role until January 2006, when Gagnon fired him. That spring, Desjardins ran against his longtime boss. He won a close primary race. He won the general election, defeating Gagnon who had started a write-in candidacy.

Desjardins had served as sheriff for only a few months when the state began its restructuring of the county jail system. The new sheriff and the commissioners lobbied the Legislature for the change. But soon after its approval, the economy soured and the funding thinned.

As a result, Desjardins’ tenure as sheriff was spent lobbying the Legislature, the state Board of Corrections and the governor for enough money to continue operating the Androscoggin County Jail.

“I didn’t do it because I wanted to,” Desjardins said. “I know I missed out on some day-to-day operations because I was busy in Augusta. I did it because I had to.”

He counts among the department’s successes the establishment of an upgraded emergency dispatch center, created after years of controversy over who ought to answer the county’s emergency calls.

He also cites the restructuring of the department’s civil division, which serves court papers, as a model change. After years of costing the county money, the civil division became a revenue center under his management. It generates tens of thousands of dollars for the county.

Among his tougher moves as sheriff were some disciplinary actions, including firing and suspension of officers involved in rough horseplay during their shifts.

It was needed to maintain trust within the department, he said. It cost friendships and created anger among some workers within the department. There were grievances and lawsuits.

“There was a price,” he said. “There is always a price.”

Desjardins is unsure what he’ll do next, he said.

In November, he was defeated in a bid for the Maine Senate. Though he is retiring, he plans to work.

Nothing has been decided, he said.

Meanwhile, he watches as the current county controversy simmers, he said. County commissioners have been criticized for their decision to disregard deep cuts in their pay and benefits decided by the Budget Committee. Instead, they voted to preserve heath care benefits and thousands of dollars more in pay.

“They’ve set back the county 10 years,” Desjardins said.

Municipal officials are understandably bitter, the retiring sheriff said.

“It’s not about money any more,” he said. “It’s about trust, and you have to be able to trust the provider of those services if you are going to give them money.”

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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