February 13, 2011

Safety chief seen as thoughtful, fair, forthright

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - After spending 30 years in the Navy, retiring as a senior officer, John Morris headed back to school -- the police academy, to be exact.

Paul LePage
click image to enlarge

PROFILING THE CABINET: An occasional series on Gov. LePage’s Cabinet nominees. Today we profile John Morris, above, the new head of the Department of Public Safety.

The Associated Press

LePage's Cabinet

William Beardsley
Age: 67
Experience: President of Husson University in Bangor for 22 years. Candidate for Maine governor in 2010; Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development; professor; assistant to the president, Bangor Hydro

David Bernhardt
Age: 50
Experience: Director of engineering and operations, Maine Department of Transportation for which he has worked for 26 years.
Profile: DOT nominee never one to lean on his shovel

Darryl Brown
Environmental Protection
Age: 66
Experience: Founder, Main-Land Development Consultants Inc.
Profile: Darryl Brown: Self-described conservationist draws bead on DEP 'attitude'

Philip Congdon
Economic and Community Development
Age: 69
Experience: Engineer, worked for Texas Instruments.

Maj. Gen. John Libby
Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management
Age: 66
Professional experience: Commissioner of Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management; Maine Emergency Management Agency, Maine National Guard

Mary Mayhew
Health and Human Services
Age: 46
Professional experience: Vice president and lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association

John Morris
Public Safety
Age: 71
Residence: Waterville
Professional experience: Director of Public Safety, Waterville; chief of police, Waterville, Raymond; U.S. naval captain

Norman Olsen
Marine Resources
Age: 59
Experience: Diplomat, U.S. State Department; reporter; commercial fisherman

Joseph Ponte
Age: 64
Professional experience: Warden, privately owned prison in Nevada; corrections departments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Idaho

Cheryl Russell
Age: 52
Professional experience: Owner, Competitive Edge Consulting; Executive director: American Loggers Council, Husson family business center; Hanington Bros.

Walter Whitcomb
Age: 58
Experience: Dairy farmer; six-term member of the Maine House of Representatives

Chandler Woodcock
Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Age: 61
Experience: Executive director, Maine Harness Horsemen's Association; 2006 GOP nominee, Maine governor; former state senator


He was 50 years old and wanted to be police chief in Richmond.

The only thing standing in his way was a 12-week course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

"That first day there, when I was standing in my blue Dickies, and a state police officer younger than my oldest son was teaching me how to salute," he said, "I remember saying, 'Oh please, dear God, don't let any of my Navy friends know about this.' "

Despite being 30 years older than many of the future officers, Morris finished first in his class and was selected class president. He met all of the physical demands, running at least a couple of miles every weekend just to ensure that he would be in shape to pass all of the tests.

Morris spent four years as police chief in Richmond before moving on to Waterville, where he served as police chief for 13 years.

It was there that he met a city councilor named Paul LePage -- a man who would become governor after Morris and others in a small group spent months planning his rise to power.

Late last month, Morris, 71, became head of the state Department of Public Safety, getting unanimous approval from the Maine Senate. He was one of the first two appointments Le-Page made after his November election.

"John and I have just a great relationship," LePage said at the time. "While he was police chief and I was mayor, we fought like cats and dogs -- him for more money, me for less money. He then retired and when I announced I was going to run for governor, he was one of the first people that called me and said, 'What can I do to help?' "

State Rep. Anne Haskell, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says she was initially skeptical when rumors of Morris' nomination began circulating.

"When you hear that, absent the information, you think that's a pretty close relationship," said Haskell, D-Portland. "But once I took a look at his resume and checked in with those who had worked with him, I thought he was well-qualified to do the job."

Morris, of West Gardiner, feels confident he can lead the 634 employees at the department, which has an annual budget of $95 million.

Those who have worked with him describe him as a no-nonsense kind of person who gets things done.

"John was a pretty straightforward guy," said Lois Galgay Reckitt, director of Family Crisis Services, a Portland agency that supports victims of domestic abuse. "He tends not to mince words. He gives you the straight scoop as he sees it."

Reckitt spent eight years sitting next to Morris when they served on the Maine Justice Assistance Council, which distributes funds from federal grants, including money to help victims of domestic violence.

"We didn't always agree, but he had the capacity to disagree and come back to the table again," she said.


A Massachusetts native, Morris spent significant amounts of time with his grandparents in East Cambridge, just one train stop away from where his parents lived in Everett.

His maternal grandparents had emigrated from Poland after World War I, and East Cambridge was "a very Polish community," he said.

"There was the Polish butcher, the baker, and if you didn't speak Polish or Lithuanian, you didn't get along there," he said.

As a child, Morris knew enough Polish to get along in the community. The son of a foundry worker and a waitress, he was the oldest of three children.

(Continued on page 2)

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