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Lawmaker Proposes Blocking LePage’s Power To Remove Sheriffs

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
Sen. Justin Chenette, a Democrat from Saco.

A Democratic senator is attempting to block Gov. Paul LePage and future governors from removing county sheriffs from office, but the proposal needs bipartisan support from legislative leaders to advance.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, proposes amending the Maine Constitution to eliminate the governor’s ability to remove county sheriffs in a bill he is hoping will be considered by the Legislature when it reconvenes in January. However, the proposal could be blocked Oct. 26, when the 10-person Legislative Council, which is comprised of five Republican and five Democratic legislative leaders, votes whether to move it forward.

The proposal, which came to light with the publication of the council’s meeting agenda, comes two weeks after LePage announced during a radio interview that he might remove two county sheriffs from office if they refuse to hold inmates past their scheduled release dates at the request of federal immigration authorities. The governor followed up a day later with a letter to Maine’s 16 sheriffs, who are each elected at the county level, reiterating his threat.

York County Sheriff William King Jr. and Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce have both said they won’t hold inmates past release dates without warrants. King has scheduled a public forum to discuss his position at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Old Orchard Beach Town Hall.

The sheriffs have argued that they need a warrant to hold someone who is suspected to be an illegal immigrant.

The Maine Constitution allows governors to remove a sheriff after a complaint, due notice and a hearing, if he finds they are “not faithfully or efficiently performing any duty” imposed on them by law.

Chenette said LePage’s recent statements and actions prompted his proposal.

“Nobody should stand idly by and allow the governor to basically run the Blaine House like a dictatorship,” said Chenette on Tuesday. “We need to support our elected law enforcement officers and it needs to extend beyond empty rhetoric and a flag pin. … These sheriffs believe they’re within their rights in upholding the law and we need to respect that.”

Voters should be the only ones able to remove elected officials, said Chenette, who sponsored a bill this year to implement a recall process to do so before a person’s term has expired. The bill died in committee, but Chenette said the idea could be revived in conjunction with his proposal around the sheriffs.

“We can do two things at once,” he said. “We should recognize the importance of this constitutional amendment while in the same vein we should have an open conversation and debate about establishing a recall process for all elected officials.”

Chenette said he was hesitant to insert a retroactivity clause into the bill so the constitutional change would apply to LePage but said he was open to discussions about it during a public hearing process.

LePage argued in his letter to sheriffs that abiding by the wishes of immigration officials is a matter of national security.

“The state of Maine recognizes the federal government’s announced policy to prioritize the removal of illegal aliens who do U.S. citizens harm,” he wrote. “My goal is to ensure all Maine children, families and citizens are kept safe from harm.”

Since LePage has been in office, lawmakers have tried to limit or alter gubernatorial power in a variety of ways, most of which have failed. Those efforts have included trying to force LePage to release voter-approved bonds for conservation and senior housing projects; ordering him to nominate permanent department commissioners; and various efforts to force the executive branch to spend federal funding in certain ways.

Many of those proposals have died after they failed to garner two-thirds support in the House, where the Republican minority has stood with LePage on a range of issues.

The second year of each legislative session is reserved for emergency and budgetary measures, as well as bills carried over from the first year of the session. New proposals from lawmakers must be approved by a majority of the Legislative Council, which meets Oct. 26.

Chenette’s bill faces several hurdles even if the Legislative Council allows it to be considered. Amending the Maine Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of each chamber of the Legislature followed by a statewide referendum vote.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.