AUGUSTA — Waterville’s former police chief got a unanimous endorsement Monday from the legislative committee that reviewed his qualifications to lead the state Department of Public Safety.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 12-0 in favor of John Morris as commissioner. The nomination now goes to the Senate for a confirmation vote.

Morris, of West Gardiner, spent 30 years in the Navy and retired in 1990 as a captain. He was police chief in Richmond from 1990-94 before taking over in Waterville. He retired in 2007 and worked last year as chief of staff for Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign.

Several people testified Monday in support of his nomination, including Kennebec/Somerset County District Attorney Evert Fowle; Lois Galgay Reckitt, director of Family Crisis Services; and representatives from the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

No one testified in opposition.

The Department of Public Safety has responsibilities in the areas of criminal justice training, law enforcement, emergency response services, safety education and code enforcement. Its bureaus include the Maine State Police, Fire Marshal’s Office, Criminal Justice Academy, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, Maine Emergency Medical Services and the Gambling Control Unit.

In introducing Morris on Monday, Dan Billings, LePage’s chief legal counsel, described the relationship between Morris and LePage. The men met when LePage was a Waterville city councilor and Morris was police chief, Billings said.

“As the governor noted when he nominated John for commissioner, the two fought like cats and dogs, with the chief advocating for the resources he believed were necessary for his department and then-Mayor LePage fighting to hold the line on the budget,” Billings said. “I will not be surprised if we see this pattern continue when John takes over as commissioner.”

He said, “Due to this history, the committee can be assured that John will be an independent commissioner who will not let his close relationship with the governor impact his professional judgment as commissioner.”

Morris, 71, described his military background, which includes two deployments in Vietnam and service as naval attache at the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia. He was also a commanding officer at a naval base in South Korea, and commanding officer of the USS Cayuga, on which he led 550 sailors and Marines.

After his military service, Morris and his wife wanted to settle in New England to be closer to their children. When he got the job as Richmond’s police chief, he had to attend the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where he was voted class president, Morris said.

“I believe my body of life’s work easily qualifies me to be head of the Department of Public Safety,” he said.

state law, the position pays $70,161 to $102,689 a year. The governor sets the salary after the nominee is confirmed.

Although Democrats on the committee asked Morris a series of questions about his relationship with LePage and his background, they all voted to confirm his nomination.

“We’re here to confirm a governor’s appointment,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. “He is going to be a reflection of the governor and his ideas about moving the state forward.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com