Supporters stunned as popular county DA bill tabled in senate

by Sarah Craighead Dedmon

Local stakeholders say they’re shocked that a bill to give Washington County its own district attorney did not move forward last week despite passing the judiciary committee with a unanimous vote, passing the House 136-1, and passing the Senate “under the hammer.”

“That means everybody just agreed to let it go forward, there was no issue, nobody had a problem with it,” said Rep. Will Tuell, who sponsored LD 272, “An Act To Establish Separate Prosecutorial Districts in Downeast Maine.” 

Tuell’s bill was also earmarked in a spending package proposed by the House Republicans and agreed to by all four legislative caucuses. Then, LD 272, which carries a $20,000 fiscal note, passed the appropriations committee by a vote of 11-2. Both the Hancock and Washington County legislative delegations and sheriffs are on record in support of the bill.

With so much evident support behind it, Tuell was surprised when last Monday a Senate motion to move LD 272 off the table failed by a vote of 16-18. 

“When a bill is agreed to and included in a package you have every right to expect it will move forward,” said Tuell. “At this point, it comes down to honoring a deal.”

Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington) was in the chamber when the motion failed, and says she was “stunned” the bill was not moved off of the table so it could then be discussed and voted upon. Moore says she asked Senate Financial Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Cathy Breen (D - Cumberland) what happened, and Breen allegedly said the bill did not progress because “we were lobbied”, declining to say by who.

“There was a bipartisan agreement on this bill that was broken at the last minute by the Senate Chair of the Appropriations Committee,” said House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham. “It is disappointing and highly unusual that House Republicans were not given their full funding amount off the table, that the spirit of our agreement was not upheld, that two individuals in the Senate were able to prevent a widely supported and much-needed bill for Washington County.” 

“A District Attorney for Washington County remains a priority for Rep. Tuell and House Republicans,” said Dillingham.

Neither Breen nor Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) responded to requests for comment from this newspaper.

Why the bill?

Currently, Washington County and Hancock County share one district attorney as part of Maine Prosecutorial District 7. But that should change, says Tuell, because district attorneys are elected by the voters, and Hancock County’s population is almost twice the size of Washington County. As of 2019, Hancock County’s population hovered near 55,000, and Washington County’s near 30,000.

The lines defining Maine’s prosecutorial districts have not been redrawn since the early 1970s, and Tuell believes it is past time to do so, not only because, for the last 50 years, all of District 7’s DAs have lived in Hancock County.

“When these districts were defined, the county demographics were different than they are now,” said Tuell. “Ultimately it comes down to each county’s voters, and that’s not an equally represented district. One of the principles of redistricting is that the districts have to have close to equal numbers of people.”

Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis agrees. “The reason that we’re doing this is so our votes count. They don’t count, because we can be outvoted by the population of Hancock County every time,” said Curtis. “That makes it hard to get people to vote on these things, we have no say.”

In addition to the demographic inequities, Curtis supports the bill because he believes less of the district attorney’s attention has translated into fewer Washington County cases prosecuted, in part because the DA must spend so much time on the road just to reach their Machias and Calais offices, from Ellsworth.

“It seems more and more cases are plead down or just dismissed,” wrote Curtis in February. “I feel this is a direct correlation to the caseload and lack of personnel in Washington County.” 

Washington County Commissioner Chairman Chris Gardner also supported LD 272 with written testimony, then stating that an increase in rural crime, especially drug-related, means the court system has seen “an explosion in workload.” 

“As such caseloads increase, prosecutors simply don’t have the time to devote to meaningful prosecution,” wrote Gardner, who this week says he’s outraged that LD 272 has been tabled.

“Washington and Hancock County both wanted this, but yet southern Maine interests decided yet again what’s best for Downeast Maine,” said Gardner. “From the commissioners’ standpoint, we are absolutely floored by the late-night chicanery that took place in Augusta. This bill passed the House overwhelmingly, it passed the Senate, it got through appropriations and then in some late-night move, there’s some political procedure that halts the bill?”

What’s next?

Tuell remains disappointed but says he sees it as a “silver lining” that the bill is only tabled, not killed. Though many bills do die on the table, it is still possible the legislature can take LD 272 up again when it next reconvenes, likely in 2022.

In order for LD 272 to have an impact, it must be passed with enough time to allow would-be DA candidates to campaign before the 2022 elections.

“As long as this gets done by January, I think we can still get it done,” says Tuell.

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