BANGOR, Maine — The union representing law enforcement personnel in the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office recently voted to endorse Chief Deputy Troy Morton to replace outgoing Sheriff Glenn Ross, but the decision to endorse a candidate was not without contention.
The president of the Fraternal Order of Police Penobscot County Law Enforcement Association Lodge No. 12 resigned at a meeting a week before the vote because he was opposed to the union endorsing a candidate.
“This was unprecedented,” Sheriff’s Department Detective John Trask, the former union president, said Monday evening after he got off work. “Off duty, anybody can do anything supporting whoever they want, but as a union I feel there has to be a separation of power there. The union has to negotiate labor contracts and settle grievances with the sheriff.”
While the FOP Local 12 is only 4 years old, Trask said he was a leader of the former union and neither endorsed candidates for sheriff.
Morton, a Republican, is running against former deputy chief Allen Stehle, an independent, in the race for sheriff that does not include a Democratic candidate.
Morton, who has 25 years in law enforcement, said Tuesday that he felt honored to be endorsed by the people he works with.
“It did mean a lot to me,” he said, stressing that he did not request an endorsement but was pleased to accept it. “To have people stand behind you, you feel good about it.”
His opponent said he doesn’t think unions should endorse candidates, especially without hearing from the candidates first.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea at all. It creates a lot of internal strife,” Stehle, who is president of Bangor-based Beal College, which offers programs ranging from accounting to law enforcement, said Tuesday. “Don’t start with polarization.”
Before union members voted Sept. 9 on whether to endorse a candidate, which passed 10-9, a lengthy discussion was held, Trask said.
“Cumberland County just went through this and they supported one candidate and the other candidate was elected in the primary,” said Trask, who remains a member of FOP Local No. 12 and will continue to serve as sergeant-at-arms for the state lodge.
With endorsing one candidate, “there is a chance you’re going to have a [strained] relationship,” Trask said.
“I don’t think you’re going to have strained relationships,” Morton said. “State police, the firefighters association and others endorse candidates.”
The Maine State Troopers Association and the Professional Firefighters of Maine union both have endorsed political candidates, with the firefighters union currently endorsing 68 candidates, according to its website. Neither of those organizations, however, include publicly elected officials like a sheriff.
Trask gave a verbal resignation at the union’s Sept. 9 meeting and to Ross the next day.
“One of the biggest reasons why I resigned during the meeting wasn’t about whether or not to support a candidate, it was because I asked in the meeting to have a debate and they refused,” Trask said of his fellow union members. “My point was: If you’re going to do this we really need to hear from both candidates and it was a flat-out refusal.”
The union voted Sept. 16 to endorse Morton to replace Ross, who is retiring at the end of the year after 36 years in law enforcement.
“It was not a unanimous vote but it was to support [Morton],” Trask said.
Interim president Ray Goodspeed ran the meeting. The election to fill the union president’s position is scheduled for December. Goodspeed did not return a message left for him Tuesday.
Political endorsements can cause problems within the ranks, Ross said, adding that he believes if Morton is elected, “he’ll smooth those over after the election.”
“There is always a risk when endorsing a candidate that there are hurt feelings,” Ross said.
Morton said Penobscot County is unlike other, larger departments, where political campaigns interfere with work.
“The most important thing is we continue to do our jobs and we are,” the deputy chief said.
Morton started as a Penobscot County Jail corrections officer in 1988 and became a patrol deputy in 1996.
Stehle started out in law enforcement in 1977 as an inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also was a teacher and later became chief deputy under Ross in November 2002, resigning after less than a year on the job, citing personal and professional reasons. Ross then appointed Morton as his replacement.
There is no Democrat in the race for Penobscot County sheriff. Former Bangor police Chief Don Winslow announced plans in February to run for the sheriff’s seat, but withdrew from the race a few weeks later after learning his cancer had returned. He died July 10.
BDN writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report.