Voters in Gouldsboro decided Wednesday again to keep their local police department and not to consider contracting with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department for regular law enforcement patrols.
Voters favored keeping their local police force by an overwhelming margin. It was the second such vote, with the same result, in Gouldsboro in the past three years.
There was no ballot tally on the proposal at Wednesday’s annual town meeting, but when the moderator called for a voice vote on whether to disband the town’s department, those opposed to the measure clearly outnumbered those in favor. When it came to a separate voice vote on whether to allow selectmen to negotiate with the sheriff’s department for contracted police protection, the outcome was the same.
The idea of disbanding the department has gained traction and lost steam repeatedly over the years as the town has struggled with turnover in the department, both with patrol officers and its chiefs. In the past 20 years, two chiefs have been fired (one of them, Guy Wycoff, was fired twice) and one of them sued the town for wrongful dismissal. Since 2019, two other chiefs have quit and have cited disagreements with other town officials among their reasons for leaving.
The most recent chief, John Shively, had been ordered last fall by the town to undergo sexual harassment sensitivity training and said in his resignation letter that a complaint about his credibility as a potential witness in court cases had been filed with the local district attorney’s office.
Two officers who worked under Shively told town officials last fall that they had no confidence in him. Of those two, one officer was fired and then later reinstated, and the other quit in February.
Shively resigned in May and, since then, the town has been soliciting applications to hire a new chief, even with the department’s future up in the air.
Danny Mitchell Jr. — a Gouldsboro resident who is the police chief in neighboring Winter Harbor and was also elected Tuesday to Gouldsboro’s board of selectmen — strongly urged voters on Wednesday not to disband the local department.
Relying on the sheriff’s department or state police to respond to emergencies, he said, would mean longer response times and perhaps worse outcomes. Having local officers who know local residents can be a big help when someone is in crisis, he said.
“I’m highly, highly against that,” Mitchell said. “They just aren’t here enough.”
Jim Watson, a former local selectman who owns and operates Young’s Market on Route 1, said that rather than eliminating the department, the town needs to do a better job of deciding whom to hire. If he needs to fire one of his employees, he said, he doesn’t shut down his store.
“The hiring is an important part of this,” Watson said. “If we hire a bad officer, is it the department’s fault?”
Dana Rice, the town’s longtime chairman of the selectboard, told voters he decided to put the question about whether to disband the department before voters again this year because a group of residents asked him to. He acknowledged that voters can keep the department if they want to, and he said he can understand the appeal of having a stable, local police department through which emergency help is always available within a few minutes.
But he predicted that the turmoil and discord surrounding the department will not go away, and that the question of whether to disband the department will come back in another couple of years.
“Those days are over,” Rice said. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again.”