An unprecedented number of Maine sheriffs are counting the days until they put away their badges.

Of the state’s 16 county sheriffs, seven have announced plans to leave office at the end of the year. And another seven will face re-election in the fall, clearing the way for a major shift in leadership governing county law enforcement and Maine’s jails.

Sheriffs in Androscoggin, Aroostook, Hancock, Penobscot, Somerset, Waldo and York counties have announced plans not to run for re-election. Sheriffs in Cumberland, Washington, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Oxford and Piscataquis are all seeking re-election. Only two — Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. in Franklin County and Sheriff Joel Merry in Sagadahoc County — are certain to keep their jobs in 2015.

The change will be healthy, bringing fresh ideas to a sometimes unchanging corner of government, said several sheriffs, including Androscoggin County’s Guy Desjardins.

“Just because you’ve been doing something for so long, doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” he said.

Desjardins plans to run for a seat in the Maine Senate after eight years as sheriff and another 11 as chief deputy.

“Maybe a new person can find something I’m missing,” he said. “You pray for that.” 

However, some sheriffs worry that too much institutional memory may be lost in a single year, weakening county initiatives statewide.

“It’s going to make things more challenging,” said Hancock County Sheriff William Clark, who plans to retire after 34 years in the same office. When it comes to the embattled jail system in particular, the counties will be weaker, he said.

Few people who run for sheriff have corrections experience, he said. Most have worked as patrol deputies or police officers. They have more experience with catching speeders, investigating crimes or even serving divorce papers — all jobs performed by sheriff personnel — than with setting budgets and policies for their respective jails.

“When I came in, I didn’t want to deal with the jail,” Clark said. “But it takes about 85 percent of my time. I had to learn how it operates.”

Today, the county jail system is in disarray. Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has called for a state takeover the system, and Gov. LePage is calling on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee to give the jails what they need to stay open.

Meanwhile, instead of supporting a state takeover, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee is working on law changes that would give more authority to the state’s Board of Corrections to decide where inmates are incarcerated.

Such changes would reduce sheriffs’ authority over the state’s 15 jails. Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset serves both Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties.

On Feb. 24, committee members opened the door to further reducing sheriffs’ authority, saying this year’s turnover might make it a good time to lessen their power.

“This next election year will be one of the biggest in history, as far as sheriffs in the state of Maine,” said Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill. “About half the sheriffs in the state of Maine are due to retire. Would this not be the time to really go full throttle on some type of regionalization?

“It seems to me, if I’m a new sheriff, I’m not as invested in protecting my jail just because it’s there,” Pease said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the former Cumberland County sheriff, agreed.

“This is a unique opportunity because new sheriffs will join the calculation with no history, no expectations,” Dion said. “I don’t know what kind of game board we’re going to design for him or her, but at least it’s an opportunity to say, ‘We can reshuffle the deck.'”

The state may find more strength among its new sheriffs than it expects, Aroostook County Sheriff James Madore said. After 40 years in law enforcement, he’s retiring at the end of the year, but he has already spent months working with a hoped-for successor.

“Sheriffs rarely come in cold,” Madore said.

Nichols, who defeated longtime Franklin County Sheriff Dennis Pike in 2012, said he had little experience dealing with jails as the Carrabassett Valley police chief or as a Maine State Police trooper and detective.

But he learned quickly, he said.

“We only want what’s best for our counties,” he said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.