HALLOWELL — City councilors are set to decide their police chief’s professional fate on Friday, adding intrigue to an annual inauguration ceremony that’s usually perfunctory.

But the debate around Chief Eric Nason’s future is sure to be charged, and the vote could be close. In the past year, Hallowell’s chief has weathered two allegations of sexual misconduct. A police practices expert called those “fatal” errors that demand his ouster, and two councilors say they’ll likely vote to get rid of Nason. However, they need four votes to do so, and it’s unclear if they’ll get them.

In June, the Kennebec Journal reported that Nason, 49, was investigated by the Maine State Police in 2013 after a female officer still under his command claimed he sexually assaulted her. No charges were filed against the chief, who has admitted a consensual sexual relationship but denied wrongdoing. The officer has maintained that she was too drunk to consent to sex with Nason in an incident at his camp.

After that publicity, a Rome woman told city officials that Nason took a pornographic picture of her as she slept while they were dating in the 1990s. A private investigator hired by the city looked into that claim, finding that while Nason admitted seeing the photo, he didn’t recall taking it.

City Manager Michael Starn reprimanded Nason in September for “lack of judgment.” However, Starn said in November that he’d recommend Nason keep his job when the chief comes up for his annual reappointment on Friday.

At the City Hall ceremony, newly elected counselors will be sworn in and appointees for city offices and boards will be named by the mayor and city manager. The seven-member council must approve them with majority votes. Most recommendations will be approved unanimously, as a matter of course.

Nason’s likely won’t be: Two councilors, Phillip Lindley and Alan Stearns, have said they will probably vote against the nomination, while Councilor Lynn Irish has said she supports the chief.

Lindley said keeping Nason would send “the wrong signal for domestic and sexual abuse” and that the city needs “a better image.” Stearns said Nason “hasn’t convinced me that he has the leadership skills to fight for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse.” Through his attorney, Walter McKee, Nason declined comment for this story.

Councilor-elect Kate Dufour of the northern Ward 1, who will be sworn in on Friday, didn’t tip her hand on Nason last week, saying that she’s still open to constituent feedback on the question of his employment and won’t reveal a stance until Friday.

“I’m not closing the door until everybody who is interested in speaking with me has had the opportunity,” Dufour said.

Other councilors have been mum: George Lapointe and Mark Sullivan refused comment on how they’ll vote, while Lisa Harvey-McPherson didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. Mayor Mark Walker would only vote in the case of a tie.

Starn said he hasn’t prepared contingency plans in case Hallowell’s police chief since 2005 is ousted by the council, saying his expectation would be that the council would uphold “anyone I appoint.” If Nason was ousted, Sgt. Peter Cloutier, the second-in-command hired earlier this month, would take over for the chief, according to city guidelines.

Nason has been working without a contract with the city since 2008. Since then, he has kept his job through annual re-appointments and now makes more than $57,000 per year. Maine law governs how police, including chiefs, can be fired — requiring cause, notice and a hearing before removal.

But because Nason has no contract and there’s no city provision requiring reappointment, councilors could likely reject Nason’s appointment without meeting the bar set by the state, said Michael Cunniff, a Portland lawyer who conducts internal investigations for cities and towns and has reviewed this case for the Kennebec Journal.

The chief got strong support at a December meeting from a dozen community members who spoke glowingly on his behalf. But the Rome woman has spoken out against his appointment, and Darrick Banda, the female officer’s lawyer, said Nason’s conduct can’t be rehabilitated and that the chief has created an “awkward” work environment for the officer.

“It’s a matter of the public having confidence in their police chief,” Banda said of the appointment process.

Before voting, said Chuck Drago, a police practices consultant and former department chief from Florida, councilors should consider two main things: The public perception of the department and the work environment for police. Drago, who has reviewed Nason’s case, said that the incidents were well-documented examples of poor conduct that demand his removal.

Drago said they could dissuade women or victims of certain crimes from trusting Hallowell police, saying the chief demonstrated “such bad judgment” that “it’s fatal” in terms of employment, leaving the city in a precarious situation if a lawsuit is filed or more allegations are made. A new chief wouldn’t carry that baggage, he said.

“Why expose your community?” Drago asked. “Why give them less than the best?”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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