AUGUSTA — Ken Mason, who had been appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to fill the vacant Kennebec County sheriff’s seat, announced Wednesday he’s withdrawing his name.

Mason’s move may avoid a legal showdown between LePage and county officials but now sets up more intrigue in the November election. Even as Mason is halting the appointment process, he said he’ll be seeking election as an independent candidate for sheriff in Kennebec County.

In a statement, Mason said his decision to withdraw from LePage’s appointment has “nothing to do with my qualifications or ability to serve.” He said the possibility that his appointment could be challenged in court was one reason for his decision.

“Moving forward with my appointment forces time and attention from both the governor and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap at a time when our state faces so many more pressing issues, and potentially forces a legal showdown between two men I greatly respect,” he said.

Mason, chief deputy in the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office with a rank of major, was one of two candidates the county Democratic committee considered when it solicited interest in October for nominations to fill the seat vacated by Randall Liberty. Liberty, a Democrat, was appointed by LePage to be warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren.

The sheriff’s appointment is only for the balance of this year. By law, a special election will be held in November to decide who will fill the remainder of Liberty’s term, which runs through 2018.

The committee opted to send only one name to the governor for consideration — that of Interim Sheriff Ryan Reardon — even though the governor had asked for additional names. Reardon has already filed paperwork to run in the November election for sheriff as a Democrat.

Mason, in his statement, said it’s clear to him that county Democrats “will not support me even being considered as a second candidate for their recommendation, despite my 29-plus years of experience and strong support from many colleagues within law enforcement. It is a clear case of politics over public safety.”

Reardon issued a statement Wednesday evening saying that neither he nor Mason wanted the selection process to be so challenging.

“I want what is best for Kennebec County and the communities we live in,” he wrote. “I can tell you the ambiguity of this situation has been personally difficult. I have done everything that has been asked of me and will continue to focus on my position, my employees, and those in my custody.”

Shortly after Mason’s announcement, LePage issued a statement saying the Kennebec County Democratic Committee members “ought to be ashamed and embarrassed by their political trickery and failure to do their job for the Maine people.”

“Their neglect of the law places a well-qualified Democrat candidate in a very difficult situation,” LePage said. “I respect Major Mason’s decision and wish him best throughout the electoral process as an independent.”

In his statement, LePage said, “Maine statute requires more than one qualified individual be submitted for a vacancy such as this. The Democratic Committee, however, continues to withhold names from the nomination process, only submitting interim Sheriff Ryan Reardon’s name in October 2015. Their actions continue to fly in the face of the advice of Attorney General Janet Mills and the Maine Constitution.”

Mason said the process should have played out in October 2015, when the Kennebec County Democratic Committee held a special meeting to pick their candidates for the vacancy. Two names were accepted for consideration for the office of Sheriff and three for a vacant county commissioner’s seat.

At that meeting, Mason said, Kennebec County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Rita Moran made it clear that the governor had asked that at least two names be forwarded to him for consideration for each position.

“(Moran) also made it very clear to the group that it was her opinion that the governor had no authority under statute to force the committee to submit two names, so they were only going to send one name for the appointment of sheriff,” Mason said. “The chair did, however, make a concession for the committee to send two names for the vacant county commissioner seat, and that happened.”

Moran has said the committee opted to drop the bottom vote-getter in each of the categories, leaving a single nomination for sheriff and two for the District 1 Kennebec county commissioner seat left vacant with Beverly Daggett’s death in September 2015. LePage appointed former state legislator Patsy Crockett to that seat on Friday.

The issue of the number of names ignited a standoff between the Republican governor and the county Democrats that boiled over earlier this month when LePage announced he was appointing Mason, and not Reardon.

The following day, Kennebec County officials called the appointment illegal. While Kennebec County officials are focusing on the governor’s obligation to choose a name only from the list the county committee provides, LePage has focused on the words “choose” and “recommendations,” which indicates more than one recommendation.

The Maine Constitution 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.

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

Mills has not issued an opinion, but in a letter to Moran, she said while the statute is unclear, the words “choose” and “recommendations” imply that if the committee submits its recommendations, more than one name should be submitted.

On Friday, Kristen Muszynski, Dunlap’s communications director, said Dunlap, a Democrat, has concerns about whether the vacancy would be filled lawfully with LePage’s choice. Because Mason’s name was not forwarded by the committee, discussions with legal counsel were taking place.

On Monday, the Kennebec County Democratic Committee announced it would hold a special meeting next week to consider whether to send additional nominees to LePage for consideration. On Wednesday, the committee chairwoman said the committee leadership and elected officials will be putting their heads together to decide what is the best course of action.

Reardon’s nomination remains in the governor’s hands.

“We appreciate the decision that Mr. Mason made,” Kennebec County Treasurer Dick Davies said. “Given the situation he finds himself in, he may have decided it’s better to have the security of the job he has rather than the uncertainty of a job he may not keep.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.