LUBEC – A locally televised debate among the three candidates for Washington County sheriff is set for Wednesday, Oct. 4 – but only two of them plan to be there.
Bunky Tinker, a Lubec resident who has organized the debate, said Monday that George Bunker, a Democrat from Baileyville, and Donnie Smith, an independent from Lubec, will be there.
But Rodney Merritt, a Republican from East Machias, has indicated he will not be present.
“Mr. Merritt has been invited, but whether he comes or not, I don’t know,” Tinker said. “He is more than welcome.”
The debate is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the town office. It will be televised on local cable Quoddy TV Channel 60, which reaches from Eastport to Cutler to Machias and Whitneyville and towns in between.
Arthur Gordon, one of Lubec’s selectmen, will serve as the moderator. The panelists are David Burns, a former state trooper; John Leighton, a Pembroke selectman; Linda Pagels, city manager in Calais; and Lewis Pinkham, the town manager and chief of police in Milbridge.
Candidates will take questions from the panel for one hour, followed by questions from the floor. Tinker estimates the full debate will take between 90 minutes and two hours.
Tinker will keep open Merritt’s place at the table.
Merritt said last week that the debate falls on the same day that he is taking his father, who recently had a heart attack, to Bangor for a checkup.
Tinker offered to reschedule the debate for a date more convenient for Merritt.
“[Merritt] told me that he was advised by [other politicians] not to participate,” Tinker said
“Then he told me that he had a conflict and was committed to other things. I was more than willing to change the schedule for him. I asked him if he would pick his own date and time, to choose a date when he could make it.
“But he said he is busy every day until the election.”
The other candidates are disappointed that Merritt may be absent.
Each also said separately that Merritt had appeared to ask them to be absent, too.
Asked if that were true, Merritt said he had discussed the debate with both of them, but more in the context of whether the debate would be a fair one.
He said he had “some concerns” early on when the debate was first announced.
“I got told by some experienced politicians that a debate should be fair to all the candidates, that the panel shouldn’t have anyone who is strongly for or against one of the candidates,” he said.
“That’s what I told the others.”
The other candidates say otherwise.
Smith said that last July, Merritt appeared at his house in uniform and “asked me not to debate.
“He pulled into my yard in his cruiser,” Smith said. “He felt that we shouldn’t do [the debate] because if we didn’t, George Bunker would look foolish if he was the only one there.
“I told him that I will debate anyone at any place, any time they have one.”
Bunker said Merritt had approached him by phone more recently.
“He tried to enlist my support not to go,” Bunker said. “He asked me why we should go down there. We went around and around for 15 minutes. He was hemming and hawing, coming up with reasons.
“I told him that these people [the panelists] are straightforward and are not going to hang him. I said if someone throws him a low-ball, I would be the first one to defend him. I said just go and have an honest debate.”
Merritt said he is planning to attend another debate among sheriff candidates on Oct. 19 at the University of Maine at Machias.
Rodney Merritt of East Machias, one of three candidates for Washington County sheriff, believes he was misrepresented in an article in Tuesday’s paper about this evening’s debate in Lubec. He will miss it because he is assisting his father with a medical appointment. However, he has been opposed to attending the debate at all because its moderator, Arthur Glidden, a town selectman, has a campaign sign in his yard supporting Donnie Smith, another of the sheriff candidates. He also opposes the inclusion on the panel of John Leighton, a Pembroke selectman who wrote a negative letter about Merritt that was published in a local weekly newspaper last month.