January 10, 2011

Unusual needs, unusual relationship in Carrabassett Valley

Ski resort, resort town’s authorities closely linked

CARRABASSETT VALLEY -- The chairlift derailment Dec. 28 at Sugarloaf has highlighted the way a town police department with unique ties to the ski resort handles its law enforcement responsibilities, according to town and resort officials.

click image to enlarge

STILL RIDING: Skiers ride a chairlift at Sugarloaf on Dec. 28 after another lift derailed in high winds earlier in the day.

Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

THE AGREEMENT

Click here to read the security agreement between Sugarloaf and Carrabassett Valley's police.

 

The town police department, which also acts as a security force for Sugarloaf, plans to use the state's investigation of the incident to help decide if any criminal investigation is necessary, according to the police chief.

"We rely upon the state and those folks to contact us to say if anything nefarious is going on," said Scott Nichols, Carrabassett Valley police chief. The department must depend on state and ski industry experts to guide certain investigations involving Sugarloaf, he said.

The situation highlights a "very unique" contract between the town police department and Sugarloaf, and is an example of how the police department avoids the appearance of any conflicts as a result of the agreement, according to Nichols.

According to the agreement, all town police officers, except for the police chief, are employees of Sugarloaf. The police chief is an employee of the town.

According to the agreement, the town officers are appointed and sworn in by the town as "special police officers," as allowed and defined by state law. The officers, who are armed, must be certified by the state Criminal Justice Academy within one year of employment at Sugarloaf, according to the agreement.

According to the agreement, "the Chief of Sugarloaf Security is also the Chief of Police. The Chief is a paid town employee who reports to the Town Manager, Selectmen and Senior Sugarloaf Staff."

Nichols said the agreement's language should probably be changed because it does not reflect the actual reporting process. "I don't report to the Sugarloaf staff; I report to the town manager and the selectmen," he said.

The only interaction with resort officials is to inform them of an issue that involves Sugarloaf, according to Nichols.

'It's very unique'

Investigations into personal injuries on Sugarloaf property are among the many services the department provides for Sugarloaf and its guests, according to the agreement. In addition to being a police department responsible for the town, the officers act as a security force at Sugarloaf, which requires responses to both law enforcement and security calls at the resort, according to the agreement.

"I don't know of another place in the country that has something like this; it's very unique," said Nichols, referring to the arrangement.

Nichols acknowledged that at first he feared it created apparent conflicts of interest, especially when the department had to investigate incidents that involve the resort or its employees.

But the department is able to approach all its criminal investigations independent of any outside influence, said Nichols, who was a state trooper for more than 20 years before taking the police chief job in Carrabassett Valley in March 2008.

"I've never encountered a situation where the town and Sugarloaf tried to influence an investigation," Nichols said. He added that any attempt to influence his law enforcement responsibilities, or those of his eight officers, would be followed by his resignation.

As for the recent chairlift incident at Sugarloaf, resort officials have said high winds delayed the lift's opening before the derailment sent five chairs falling to the slopes below, injuring eight people and stranding dozens more on the lift.

Mechanics had been unable to realign the chairlift rope, decided to close the lift and were unloading passengers at a reduced speed when the derailment happened, according to statements from Sugarloaf.

An incident report is being prepared by a Carrabassett Valley police lieutenant who is conducting interviews with people, resort and public officials involved in the incident, Nichols said.

(Continued on page 2)

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