AUGUSTA — Defying the recommendation of Kennebec County Democrats, Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he will appoint Ken Mason as the new county sheriff.

LePage’s selection of Mason, who is now the chief deputy at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, could set off a legal battle. The Republican governor has refused in recent months to appoint a new sheriff after receiving a single recommended candidate — the interim sheriff — from the Kennebec County Democratic Party Committee.

In a statement Thursday, LePage blasted the county committee’s “blatant refusal” to offer more than one candidate.

“Repeatedly, I have asked for at least two names as required by the law, but Democrats continue to play silly games and I have had enough,” LePage said. “I am selecting Major Kenneth Mason for this appointment. He has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement, and I have the utmost confidence he will continue to be an exemplary public servant.”

Mason, reached by phone following the announcement, called it an “unexpected opportunity” and said he didn’t yet know when he would start the job. A resident of Readfield, Mason said he’s focused on moving forward as a professional with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.

“My entire career has been dedicated to law enforcement,” Mason said. “I plan to dedicate myself immediately to the sheriff’s office.”

In October, the county Democratic Party met to nominate candidates to be considered for appointment to fill two county-level vacancies. One of those was created when LePage appointed then-Sheriff Randall Liberty, a Democrat, to be warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren.

Ryan Reardon, of Oakland, who became interim Kennebec County sheriff after Liberty’s departure, was the single name recommended by the party to fill the sheriff’s position. LePage, though, said he was looking for additional names to consider — saying he’s entitled by state statute to a list of candidates — and he refused to appoint Reardon.

Mason would serve through the end of this year. A special election in November would determine who will fill out Liberty’s unfilled term through 2018. Reardon has already filed to run for the sheriff seat as a Democrat, and Mason said Thursday he also intends to run for the seat, but he doesn’t know if he’ll run with a party affiliation.

Rita Moran, chairwoman of the Kennebec County Democratic committee, noted in a statement Thursday that the committee voted last week to reaffirm its actions in October to send only Reardon’s name to the governor, ignoring LePage’s directive for more choices.

“Gov. LePage has made his decision,” Moran said. “We have secured legal counsel, and I will do as the committee wishes.”

Some Democrats had advocated also forwarding the name of Mason to satisfy the governor. Mason put his name forward in the nominating process last fall, but the Democratic committee opted not to submit it and instead only recommended Reardon.

In his statement Thursday, LePage said Mason was born and raised in the Augusta area and previously served as a patrol officer with the Augusta Police Department, beginning in 1987. He’s also a U.S. Marine and graduated from Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale.

Mason said Thursday he was “a little bit” disappointed his name wasn’t also put forward to LePage in the fall, because he thought he was well qualified.

Reardon said in a statement Thursday that after the last five months, “it has been important that I continue to concentrate on the work that needs to be done at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.”

“There are a lot of projects, programs and decisions that need to be made every day for the 130-plus employees and the 121,000-plus citizens of Kennebec County,” Reardon said. “I will continue to focus on that aspect. I look forward to the election in November where the citizens of Kennebec County will decide for themselves.”

Before Mason’s appointment was announced Thursday, Moran said it was her understanding that LePage’s selection of someone other than the committee’s recommendation may involve the county government and District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who may need “to handle the legal aspects and initiate whatever action is necessary.”

The state statute that governs this process says the governor “shall choose from any recommendations submitted to the governor by the county committee of the political party from which the appointment is made.”

Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, had recently notified the Democratic committee that she had been requested by LePage’s legal counsel to give specific advice on the issue.

“Before providing a detailed response,” Mills wrote, “I would like to know the Committee’s intentions. … While the intent of the statute is not entirely clear, the use of the words ‘choose’ and ‘recommendations’ seem to imply that if the Committee submits its recommendations, the names of more than one qualified individual should be submitted.”

Staff writer Jessica Lowell contributed to this report.

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