ELLSWORTH — For the past 45 years, no one serving as district attorney for Washington County has actually been a resident of Washington County.
Currently, Washington and Hancock counties make up prosecutorial District 7. Since the district was created in the 1970s, the three people who have served as district attorney have lived in Hancock County. This has been problematic in a number of ways, according to testimony given at a Jan. 29 public hearing on LD 1967. The bill sponsored by state Rep. Will Tuell (R-Machias) aims to split the prosecutorial district along county lines.
“Although adjacent, the county line is about the only thing Hancock and Washington share as far as broad similarities,” said Christopher Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commissioners.
Gardner, whose background includes 23 years in law enforcement, said Hancock County has more densely populated towns with dedicated law enforcement where Washington County is more rural and uses a regional approach to policing.
If approved by the Legislature as written, the bill would require the commissioners of both counties to submit a referendum question to voters at the statewide election in November. The question would ask voters if they want to dissolve District 7 and develop a plan to either establish a separate prosecutorial district or join a neighboring district.
If voters in both counties approved the measure, District 7 would be dissolved following the November 2022 election. At that time, separate district attorneys for each county would be chosen. Tuell’s bill proposes putting the issue to a vote but he said earlier this week that the Legislature could decide to act on the proposal itself.
Several of those who testified Jan. 29 said the current setup makes it impossible to elect a district attorney from Washington County.
According to figures provided by Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis, Hancock County’s population of 55,497 is nearly double that of Washington County’s at 31,595.
Machias attorney Jeffrey Davidson said that means whoever wins the Hancock County vote in the race for district attorney will win the overall election. In 2014, for example, candidate Paul Cavanaugh of Calais won the Washington County vote, but current District Attorney Matthew Foster won the Hancock County vote and, therefore, the election.
“It is obvious to any observer that Washington County will never, by its vote, get to elect the district attorney they favor if Hancock County has a resident running for office,” Davidson said.
Curtis said this means Washington County residents really don’t get a choice.
“If the citizens of Washington County are unhappy with the job I am doing as their sheriff, they have the option of electing a new sheriff,” he said. “I am not sure this is the case with the district attorney as long as the position encompasses both Washington and Hancock counties.”
Davidson said district attorneys for the two counties have seen Hancock County as having a greater need for services and resources. Combatting crime, particularly drug dealing, can’t be done with what amounts to a part-time position.
“We need someone who is present every day to work with the police, set consistent policies, gain institutional knowledge of our county, know cases that are pending and be available to work with the courts and defense counsel,” said Davidson, who has been a criminal defense attorney in Washington County for 16 years. “We need someone who can train and oversee the office on a daily basis, not one or two days a week.”
State Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais) said the two counties are “drastically different places.” Washington County has two Native American reservations and a significant Hispanic population, making it the most diverse county in the state. Almost 10 percent of the population is nonwhite, compared to 2.5 percent in Hancock County.
Further, Washington County’s median household income is $38,239 compared to $51,438 in Hancock County. The median is the figure in the middle of the scale, with 50 percent of household incomes being higher and 50 percent being lower.
Perry and Gardner said the lower income levels have made Washington County’s population more vulnerable, especially to the opioid crisis.
“Washington County was the canary in the coal mine of the opiate problem in Maine,” Perry said, adding that those dealing with addiction need to quickly get through the court system and into treatment.
“We need a district attorney who knows the particular culture and make up of Washington County so that the criminal justice system may work more efficiently and with a greater level of cultural sensitivity,” she said.
Matthew Dana, police chief for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the county needs a district attorney who understands the complexities of tribal law. Often, charges on a single case can end up being filed in both Passamaquoddy Tribal Court and Maine District Court.
“The complexity of the Maine Indian Land Claim Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act, in regards to jurisdiction within the Indian Territory, can be hard to grasp if you don t live it every day,” Dana said.
When recently explaining a case in which a defendant in a single case was charged in both courts, he said, an assistant district attorney told Dana, “That is why I hate tribal cases.”
District Attorney Foster, who testified neither for nor against the proposal, spoke but did not submit written testimony. He said a lack of lawyers in Washington County would make it difficult for the proposal to work. He also said costs would increase, both in terms of money spent to bring in lawyers from outside the area, and for items such as case management software and support.
“I just think that the proposal will cause more problems than it solves and is not likely to work,” he said in an email after the hearing. “There is already a shortage of attorneys in Washington County, and striking out on their own isn’t going to make that situation any better.”
But others testifying countered those points.
“Cost-wise, each county pays for buildings and support staff. This would not change under this bill, nor would it stop each county from collaborating with others, or even sharing resources,” said state Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington County) in her testimony.
Gardner proposed keeping the three prosecutor positions in Washington County but making one position the district attorney instead of an assistant district attorney. This would avoid having to budget for a DA on top of the costs of the three existing positions.
“As keepers of his budget, we are not sure we share as much in [Foster’s] dire warnings,” Gardner said. “We do stand ready to be a partner in this regard and offer you our commitment that whatever increases in the county budget occur as a result, we stand ready to fund.”
Citizens can continue to submit written testimony at https://www.mainelegislature.org/testimony. In the committee dropdown, select judiciary and under date drop down select Jan. 29. Then select LD 1967 and fill out the form.