Officers, citizens request charter to clarify county policy

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AUBURN – Statute drags out the hiring process for officers, so Sheriff Guy Desjardins and several of his employees are pushing for a charter to clarify procedures, speed the process and clear up gray areas.

Desjardins is not the only one pushing for it, either. In the late spring, members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee sent the Androscoggin County commissioners a letter urging the creation of a charter.

The matter escalated after a controversy flared over the hiring of a deputy that pitted Desjardins and commission Chairman Elmer Berry against each other.

Commissioner Constance Cote raised the issue of a charter at Wednesday’s meeting and accepted public comment. No action was taken.

Ron Potvin, a corrections officer with the department and director of the Small Property Owners of Auburn, spoke on behalf of the association.

“The bottom line is, people would like to weigh in on what government looks like,” Potvin said.

In talks about the sheriff’s office controversy, “One thing was across the board,” Potvin said. “They thought there needed to be a stronger set of rules to work by. Things needed to be clarified and … a charter commission could act to do this.”

Desjardins told commissioners that there is public interest in serving on a charter commission, and both Sabattus and Auburn have had good results with their charters.

Two Maine counties, Aroostook and York, have charters. Cote said commission members plan to visit both to see how they are organized.

Commissioners repeatedly questioned the necessity of a charter.

“The county has the statutes, personnel policy, purchase policy and the union contract that describes in detail all the established policies and procedures that have been in place for many years. Do you think the charter is better?” Cote asked Desjardins.

Desjardins said policies leave a lot of gray areas that a charter would identify and clarify.

Cote noted that an attempt to create a charter failed in 1991, but Potvin said things are different now.

“Given the atmosphere, the public perception of county government and how it’s been running… we still feel it’s a necessary step that would act to improve the delivery of services to the public.”

Desjardins said a charter will help involve more people in county government.

“Individual communities are wanting a chance to put their hands into it, make it grow and design it,” he said.

Issues a charter might address include number of commissioners, term lengths, districts, general structure of government, job descriptions and administrative procedures, Register of Probate John Cleveland said.

The cost is minimal, he said, with the commission often comprised of volunteers.

“We’re not ready to jump right into it, until we get a feeling from the general public,” Berry said.

Desjardins said that a charter could help speed the hiring process. Currently, he needs approval from commissioners to even post a job.

So, if a corrections officer quits today, the sheriff said he’ll have to wait two weeks until the next meeting to get that approval. Then collective bargaining requires that he post internally first. Meanwhile, he’s paying for overtime hours.

He said if any good has come of the hiring controversy, it’s been that the charter discussion has been brought forward.

“We were able to put the charter issue in the limelight,” Desjardins said. “Now they’re talking about it.”

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