Colin Hickey Staff Writer February 21, 2001 Wednesday Copyright 2001 Guy Gannett Communications, Inc. Central Maine Morning Sentinel (Waterville, ME) February 21, 2001 Wednesday
(WATERVILLE, Maine) -- Long-simmering tension between Police Chief John E. Morris and City Councilor John M. Fortier, R-Ward 5, came to a boil Tuesday night amid accusations of a witch hunt, character assassination and police intimidation.
With City Council chambers serving as the stage, the drama began moments after city councilors approved minutes of their previous meeting.
At issue was Fortier's probe into how Morris obtains and spends police-grant funds, as well as complaints the city councilor raised about the Police Department last summer.
Fortier held that his probe is just and charged that Morris and his department have tried to intimidate him into stopping it.
He said police have attempted to damage his reputation and have acted to take business away from his downtown insurance agency.
Fortier also accused Morris of directing his police officers to trail his teen-age son.
'Others may agree or disagree with my concerns,' Fortier said in referring to Morris's actions in regard to grants, 'but everybody must agree that the manner in which I have been treated by the Police Department is outrageous.'
Morris, in a prepared statement, argued that Fortier is the one guilty of outrageous behavior.
'I must tell you that the actions and behavior of Councilor Fortier, in his long-term effort to discredit both the Police Department and me, has several deleterious effects,' he said. 'The first and most important is the harm it has caused to the health and morale of the Police Department. Police officers are now concerned what will happen to them if they stop or have to deal with Councilor Fortier or members of his family.'
Morris also noted that an attorney general's office investigation exonerated him and his department of all charges raised by Fortier and fellow councilors Paul G. Poulin, D-Ward 2, and Paul R. LePage, R- Ward 1, last summer.
'In fact,' he said, 'the AG said some very nice things about me and the department.'
City Solicitor William A. Lee set the stage for the accusations that followed when he addressed the City Council about his research into whether Fortier's probe into departmental grant procedures constituted a violation of the City Charter.
Resident Charles Kellenberger raised that as an issue at the Feb. 6 council meeting.
Lee cleared Fortier of that charge, based on his interpretation of charter language governing councilor behavior.
The city's professional legal adviser said Fortier did not violate municipal law, because he clearly acted as an individual - as opposed to acting as a representative of the council - in the matter.
'I found no evidence you violated the charter in carrying out an inquiry or investigation,' Lee told For tier from the podium.
Morris, however, argued in his statement that Fortier was acting as an elected official.
'Councilor Fortier says that his investigation is being done as a citizen and not as a councilor,' he said. 'It would be convenient for me at times to say I am not the police chief, but just a citizen. That, however, is not life.
'When Councilor Fortier arrived at the police station a couple of weeks ago carrying his own copier in his arms, do you think city employees thought of him as citizen Fortier or as Councilor Fortier? As he spent almost three hours in the police conference room copying grants, he looked like, sounded like, acted like and, in fact, was a city councilor.'
Deputy Police Chief Joseph Massey, also in a prepared statement, said Fortier's actions have damaged morale at the department.
'The current investigation fiasco that we have been facing for the last several months has created an unhealthy working environment for officers, making it difficult to provide consistent and quality police services,' he said.
Fortier defended his actions. He said he has never questioned the department's integrity but simply sought to examine a grant application-and-implementation process he perceives as questionable.
'I can assure you, I have no interest in the operations of the Police Department,' he said. 'That is not what my Freedom of Access requests are about.'
Councilor Roland D. Hallee, D-Ward 6, was the only councilor to take a public stand on the issue.
'I don't think there is any doubt in anybody's mind what kind of investigation this is,' he said. 'I personally feel Councilor Fortier has undertaken an investigation to discredit the police chief. I am tonight publicly asking Councilor Fortier to stop his witch hunt.'
City Solicitor Lee offered a more neutral view.
'I feel, in my personal opinion, that it only hurts the city to let this continue any longer than necessary,' he said.