AUGUSTA — Kennebec County elected officials say Gov. Paul LePage’s appointment of Ken Mason to the vacant Kennebec County sheriff’s seat is illegal.

Citing a provision in state statute, they say the governor can make an appointment only from names submitted by the county committee of the political party from which the appointment is to be made. The name the Kennebec County Democratic Committee submitted to the Republican governor is that of interim county Sheriff Ryan Reardon.

A red flag also has been raised at the Secretary of State’s Office, which by law reviews gubernatorial appointments to ensure they comply with state law.

On Friday, Kristen Muszynski, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s communications director, said Dunlap, a Democrat, has concerns about whether the vacancy would be filled lawfully with LePage’s choice.

“The name didn’t come from the party committee,” Muszynski said, and that’s prompting discussion with legal counsel.

The governor’s office declined to respond to requests for comment.

The governor’s appointment came late Thursday after a four-month stalemate with the Kennebec County Democratic Committee. The committee had forwarded a single name to the governor for consideration for the sheriff’s vacancy, and in turn, the governor had said he wanted two.

Mason, the chief deputy in Lincoln County, had submitted his name to the county Democratic Committee for consideration in October, when the county Democrats met to select candidates for that vacancy as well as for a county commissioner’s seat. The committee declined to send Mason’s name to the governor, a decision the committee reaffirmed after lengthy debate in a special meeting last week.

In a statement released Friday, Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said: “It’s important for everyone to know that law enforcement in Kennebec County is strong. Sheriff Reardon remains in charge and is doing an excellent job.”

In an interview, she added Reardon is not going to stop working while the legality issue is sorted out.

The county officials are raising the concern now because the governor has announced an appointment of someone who will work for Kennebec County. The appointment, however, is only for the balance of this year. A special election in November will determine who will complete the term of Randall Liberty, who resigned as sheriff to accept the governor’s appointment to be warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren. That term runs through 2018.

The Maine Constitution, in Article 9, section 10, contains a provision for a governor to act to remove a sheriff from office and appoint a replacement in the event that the officeholder fails in “faithfully or efficiently performing any duty imposed on the sheriff by law,” and only after a complaint, due notice and a hearing. The article also states: “All vacancies in the office of sheriff, other than those caused by removal in the manner aforesaid shall be filled in the same manner as is provided in the case of judges and registers of probate.”

That process, outlined in statute, states the governor shall choose from any recommendations submitted by the county committee of the political party from which the appointment is to be made.

While Kennebec County officials and the secretary of state’s office are focusing on the governor’s obligation to choose name only from the list the county committee provides, LePage has focused on the words “choose” and “recommendations,” which indicates more than one recommendation.

LePage’s former chief legal counsel had asked Attorney General Janet Mills for an opinion on the matter.

Mills, a Democrat, sent a letter to county Democratic Chairwoman Rita Moran seeking some information.

“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.”

On Friday, Tim Feeley, spokesman for the attorney general said no opinion had been issued, adding: “We are not commenting at this time.”

Maloney said in the past, governors have respected the wishes of the local political committees, honoring the idea of local control. However, when she was nominated by Democrats in Kennebec and Somerset counties to fill the district attorney vacancy, LePage failed to make an appointment because, he said, he was not sent two names and he was disappointed he was not given the name of the-then deputy district attorney.

“I think the Democrats were daring (the governor),” Jim Melcher said, because it was apparent LePage wanted to see more than one name. A professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, Melcher watches state politics. “And the governor will take a dare, even when there’s no dare.”

Unless some great scandal occurs, Melcher said, the office of sheriff is fairly low-profile and generally not very partisan, and not one that people tend to rally around.

“It’s not as though people are saying we have contrasting law enforcement styles here,” he said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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