AUBURN – Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins demoted his second-in-command Wednesday under pressure from county commissioners to either demote acting Chief Deputy Eric Samson or cut his pay.

“They left me no choice,” Desjardins said. “It saddens me how it all came about.”

Samson told the three-member commission two weeks ago that he would leave his post because the permanent promotion, as budgeted, would have forced him to take a $10,000 pay cut.

“The opportunity can’t be at the cost of my family’s needs,” he said.

As the county jail’s programs director and a sergeant with nearly 15 years of full-time experience in the department, he made between $52,000 and $54,000 a year in wages and overtime pay.

The commission offered a salary of $42,000, the lowest in Maine for a chief deputy.

Samson, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, said he was preparing to leave when commissioners issued their new ultimatum:

“The commissioners find that because of his long-standing dispute as ‘acting’ chief deputy, and because he is in fact being held out as and is performing all duties of the chief deputy, Eric Samson is in fact and in law the chief deputy of Androscoggin County and shall be paid that salary only for all duties performed by him effective May 7, 2007.”

Commissioners Elmer Berry and Helen Poulin then voted to endorse their finding. Commissioner Constance Cote abstained.

Cote declined to talk about the decision. Berry and Poulin said they wanted to end what appeared to a be a job in limbo.

“At 16 months, it’s been going on too long,” Poulin said. “We had to do something.”

Besides, Samson understood the acting status of the job when he accepted Desjardins’ assignment in January 2007.

“That was a choice that he made,” Poulin said.

Samson’s name and the chief deputy titled appeared on his office door, on department stationery and on business cards.

Berry said he was also forced to make the move because the sheriff continued to regard Samson as his permanent choice.

Desjardins disagreed. Following Samson’s decision two weeks ago to refuse the promotion, the sheriff had asked commissioners to fund a newspaper advertisement to search for a new chief deputy.

They refused, saying the position wasn’t vacant.

“I immediately submitted a request to advertise that position.” Desjardins said. “All I’m asking for is a fair playing field.”

“Sheriff, you’ve had 16 months for your playing field,” Berry said.

Desjardins and Sgt. Rielly Bryant, a leader of the department’s union, requested time to meet with Samson rather than make the salary change immediate.

“We need to have time to discuss this with our union reps,” Bryant said.

Commissioners refused.

Minutes after the meeting, Desjardins drafted a letter demoting Samson. And he worried about state law, which demands that he have a chief deputy.

“I have to regroup,” he said. He remains grateful for Samson’s service, he said.

As the programs director, Samson oversees alternative sentencing programs and other initiatives inside the county jail.

“Eric is going to continue to play a major role in this organization,” the sheriff said.

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