‘Not enough oversight’: Scandals in Vermont sheriffs’ departments spur legislative action

By TIFFANY TAN

VtDigger

Published: 02-01-2023 4:54 PM

BENNINGTON — Eight of Vermont’s 14 counties are poised to swear in new sheriffs on Wednesday, including Franklin County’s John Grismore, a former deputy who has been charged with assaulting a man under his department’s custody last August.

The outgoing sheriffs include Peter Newton of Addison County, who was arrested in June on charges of sexually assaulting and unlawfully restraining a woman, and Chad Schmidt of Bennington County, who has acknowledged spending a third of the year in Tennessee since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Vermont in 2020.

These reports have prompted key legislators to propose significant reforms to the way county law enforcement officers do business in Vermont.

“We’ve seen more and more over the last couple of years that sheriffs are not always doing the right thing,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, a leading proponent of the proposals. “We need to create a system where, if a sheriff does the wrong thing, they can be held accountable.”

One bill, S.17, would end the decades-old policy that allows sheriffs to personally pocket up to 5% of the revenue from their department’s contract work — additional pay that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year for this elected office. The bill also calls for a study on whether to change the number of sheriffs in Vermont and the boundaries of their territory.

Last week, lawmakers went a step further by introducing a constitutional amendment, Proposal 1, that would enable the Legislature to establish qualifications for sheriffs. Hardy said that she and her colleagues began drafting that measure upon realizing the Vermont Constitution limited the Legislature’s ability to set standards for sheriffs because they’re elected members of another branch of government.

“We needed to change the Constitution,” Hardy said.

The constitutional amendment was introduced just days after the public learned that outgoing Caledonia County Sheriff Dean Shatney gave himself and his entire staff bonuses totaling $400,000 last September, and that state police were investigating the finances of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff-elect Grismore.

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The proposal also came on the same day that departing Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, of Orange County, admitted to unprofessional conduct by assigning an unqualified deputy to handle special crime investigations in 2020.

Constitutional amendments are particularly challenging to enact in Vermont, and the process takes at least four years. But both Proposal 1 and S.17 have garnered support from leading lawmakers, suggesting they could gain traction this session. Sponsors include Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden Central; Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington; and Hardy, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee.

If the proposed constitutional amendment succeeds, Sears said lawmakers would consider new eligibility factors for sheriffs, including residency requirements. The Vermont Constitution does not currently mandate that sheriffs live in the county they’re elected to serve.

Proposal 1 also could enable legislators to change the rules governing whether and how sheriffs can be removed from office. Impeachment — a political process rather than a judicial one — is currently the state’s only recourse while county residents wait for their quadrennial chance to elect a sheriff.

“We’re all kind of stuck in this position,” Sears said of the lack of an alternative to impeachment.

Vermont sheriffs aren’t required to be sworn law enforcement officers. But for those who are, such as Grismore, being decertified by the state Criminal Justice Council wouldn’t remove them from the sheriff’s seat.

Sears and Hardy say they don’t think the state’s sheriff structure is broken, but they believe it has systemic problems that need to be fixed.

“There’s not enough accountability,” Hardy said. “There’s not enough oversight.”

Reform as common ground

Leaders of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs acknowledge the challenges that multiple sheriffs’ departments are facing. They say they support the goal of reform.

But the groups don’t see eye to eye with lawmakers on the details.

They oppose, for example, the provision in S.17 that would scrap sheriffs’ ability to keep 5% of money earned through their departments’ contract work with private and public entities. Existing law caps the amount, referred to as an administration fee, at 5% of a contract’s value.

John Campbell, director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, told the Senate Government Operations Committee last week that sheriffs would view this measure as “punitive,” stemming from the actions of a few in their ranks.

“There are people who do an incredible job,” he said, “and because of the actions of a few, they’re all being lumped into this.”

Some sheriffs keep the maximum administration fee to add to their salaries. Others take home a fraction of the money and roll the rest into their departments’ budgets, or they invest the full amount in the department.

Because Vermont sheriffs’ departments are only partially funded by taxpayers, their representatives say, the additional money has helped pay for the law enforcement agencies’ expenses, such as training, uniforms and squad cars.

Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization opposes S.17 as it is currently written. He told VtDigger that the bill is “overly broad” and “would not curtail” any of the issues that have surfaced against sheriffs’ departments over the past six months.

Anderson said the sheriffs’ association believes it can work with lawmakers to tailor S.17 in a way that would address their concerns.

“Sheriffs provide critical services whether that’s supporting rural communities, the Agency of Human Services, and the Judiciary,” he said in an email. “This work is too important to not get right.”

Anderson said his organization is waiting for feedback from the incoming sheriffs before taking a position on Proposal 1, the proposed constitutional amendment.

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has not weighed in on either S.17 or Proposal 1. In a written statement, Vermont Department of Public Safety spokesperson Adam Silverman told VtDigger that officials are monitoring the proposals and don’t have any input at this stage of the legislative process.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont welcomes both pieces of legislation, said its lobbyist, Falko Schilling. The proposals demonstrate that lawmakers are trying to solve problems within their power while seeking more oversight through the proposed constitutional amendment, he said.

If the Legislature were to have greater oversight of sheriffs, as envisioned in Proposal 1, Schilling said, the ACLU would want to work with lawmakers on measures to determine whether an elected sheriff is fit to remain in office.

“Removing someone from an elected office like that is a very, very serious thing,” he said. “And the removal will need to be conducted in a way that protects their rights and the rights of the voters.”

Robert Sand, founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law and Graduate School, said he personally backs the proposal to get rid of the sheriffs’ ability to pocket contract money.

“I think that policing for profit is a horrible idea,” said Sand, a former Windsor County state’s attorney who is concluding his tenure as the county’s high bailiff. “It is almost as bad as private companies running correctional institutions.”

Sand said he found Proposal 1 noteworthy because it would place qualifications on who could serve as sheriff, but not other county positions, such as state’s attorney or high bailiff.

“On one level, it does feel a tiny bit unusual to single out one county office for a constitutional amendment,” he said. “But there might be a good reason to do that.”

Sand said he has no qualms about the Legislature’s creating qualifications for sheriffs, explaining that the body has the strongest hand in how the criminal justice system is shaped.

“The good, the bad and the ugly in our criminal legal system belongs to the Legislature,” he said. “That’s not typically where we point fingers. We look at prosecutors, we look at police.”

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