Shared chief could mean police merger

MOUNT DESERT — Sharing a police chief between Mount Desert and Bar Harbor would put the towns on the path toward a combined police force, representatives from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association told officials from both towns at a joint meeting at the Somesville Firehouse Aug. 28.

Such a combined department wouldn’t necessarily represent much of a cost savings, especially in the short term, but would improve law enforcement’s ability to serve and protect in the area, Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan said.

“It will enhance your services, and it will enhance your ability to work together over a large area,” Chief Tolan said. “You’re patrolling more areas, you’re doing it with the same amount of people, but you’re doing a better job.”

Selectmen and councilors from both towns arranged the Aug. 28 meeting to discuss a question that has been percolating for months: Should the towns consider making permanent the arrangement now in place, where Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis splits his time between both towns, and neither has a full-time chief?

Public safety officials from every island town were in attendance at the meeting. Just two citizens turned out, including former Bar Harbor Police Chief Nate Young. Mount Desert and Bar Harbor have been under a temporary chief-sharing arrangement since Young was placed on administrative leave in October 2013. He was eventually terminated by then-Town Manager Dana Reed in January of this year.

Chiefs of Police Association members in attendance included executive director Bob Schwartz, Yarmouth Police Chief Mike Morrill and Chief Tolan.

The conversation quickly turned to the potentials of a combined police force because, as Chief Morrill said, one chief would, over time, create shared values and cultures among the officers in each department. Creating one department would logically follow in such a process.

While some Bar Harbor councilors seemed eager to explore such a path, Mount Desert Selectmen were more hesitant. Tom Richardson said he was surprised that the discussion turned so quickly to the topic.

“We’re talking about combining police departments. I thought we were talking about sharing a police chief. Did I miss something?” Richardson said. “I didn’t think we were even near the beginning of a discussion about combining police forces.”

For councilor David Bowden, any exploration of regionalizing services makes sense.

“Our town and our schools are shrinking, and we may need to look at these things,” Bowden said. “We went through this in 1969 with the [creation of one island] high school. An opportunity has arisen here to look at these things.”

Chiefs Tolan and Morrill relayed their involvement in a plan 10 years ago to combine the Falmouth and Yarmouth police departments. They created the plan, which they said would have greatly increased police services, and it gained some traction before it fell apart for political reasons. Since that time, their departments have combined dispatch, animal control and other services.

It is in these combinations that efficiencies begin to materialize, they said. The chiefs acknowledged that combining dispatch offices was not very popular at first.

“It was rough, but eventually the community adjusted to it,” Chief Morrill said. These types of shifts are likely to become more common in the future, as towns look for ways to save money, he added.

“I firmly believe that in the very near future, a lot of small police departments are going to have to regionalize because of expenses,” Chief Morrill said.

Some Mount Desert councilors expressed a willingness to explore the issue further, but said they would only do so if Chief Willis agreed to stay on the job. “Because if he doesn’t want to do it, that makes my decision real easy,” Richardson said. “Because I don’t want to lose him.”

For his part, Chief Willis said that he wasn’t all that interested in the temporary position when it was created and had quoted officials a figure that he was sure they would turn down. While the situation may be working out right now, he does not want anyone to think that the job of a permanent, two-town chief would necessarily go to him.

“You are still talking about me, and I really want to get on with the concept of sharing a chief,” Chief Willis said. “As time goes on, I’d like to know…if these two towns want to share a police chief, I want you to say that and write a job description.”

And he might not even apply, he added.

Mount Desert selectmen concluded that Willis needed to speak with their town manager, Durlin Lunt, and somebody needed to brief them on where exactly he stands.

“If things work well on his end, I’m ready to move with it. But I haven’t heard from him,” Richardson said.

Bar Harbor council chairman Paul Paradis said his group agreed with that sentiment. “If this chief was not ready to move things forward, that’s a game changer for all of us,” Paradis said.

Robert Levin

Robert Levin

Former reporter Robert Levin covered the people, businesses, governmental and nonprofit agencies of Bar Harbor. [email protected]