Expanded sheriff reform bill advances in the Vermont Senate

By TIFFANY TAN

VTDigger

Published: 03-22-2023 7:56 PM

The Vermont Senate could soon vote on a series of reforms to the county sheriff system following a spate of scandals in departments around the state.

The Senate Government Operations Committee signed off last week on the bill, S.17, which has expanded in scope since it was introduced in January. It has since been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee; from there, it would head to the floor.

The latest version notably seeks to reform how sheriffs personally profit from their department contracts. Under current law, sheriffs have the option of charging an overhead fee of up to 5% of a contract’s value, then adding that amount or a fraction of it to their own salaries. The rest is rolled into their department’s budget.

The legislation would still allow sheriffs’ departments to collect a 5% administration fee, but the money could no longer be used to augment a sheriff’s pay. Funds collected through the fee could be used only for department expenses not covered by state or county dollars, such as the cost of patrol vehicles, personnel uniforms and staff training.

The proposed change in a decades-old system comes in the wake of multiple scandals in Vermont sheriffs’ departments. Some legislators have described these as symptoms of a lack of oversight and accountability in an elected law enforcement office that can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars from contracts with public and private organizations.

In Franklin County, state police are investigating the new sheriff, John Grismore, after auditors expressed concern about the department’s finances during the time he was its chief deputy. In Caledonia County, auditors found that Sheriff Dean Shatney, before leaving office in February, gave himself and his entire staff bonuses totaling $400,000.

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The sheriff reform bill also aims to address auditing issues. A section states that the moment a sheriff has announced he or she is resigning or not seeking reelection, all the department’s financial transactions, including transfers of assets, shall be co-signed by the sheriff and the county’s assistant judges to create checks and balances.

S.17 mandates that sheriffs maintain a detailed record of their work schedule, including their days off and any remote work outside their area of jurisdiction for more than three days.

Sheriffs are currently not required to fill out timesheets. As elected officials answerable only to voters during elections, they decide how much time off to take each year, when to do so and where.

The last Bennington County sheriff, Chad Schmidt, practically disappeared from public view after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Vermont in 2020. He recently acknowledged to VTDigger that he spent a third of last year and of 2021 in Tennessee, where his family had relocated during the pandemic and bought real estate.

The bill also creates the Sheriff’s Departments Oversight Task Force, which would examine reform and accountability issues across departments. Its job would include creating a sustainable funding model for sheriffs’ departments that is not based on contracts for services, as well as reviewing the compensation structure of sheriffs, deputies and department staff.

Before the Senate Government Operations Committee voted Friday on whether to advance the bill, its chair, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, said the structural problems with the sheriffs’ departments needed legislative action.

“It’s beyond the single-bad-apple kind of argument. There is a problem with the way that sheriffs are doing their jobs in our state,” said Hardy, a sponsor of the bill. “While this bill does not pretend to fix those problems, and there’s a lot more work to do … we need to do something besides a study.”

Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson, who serves as president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization was excited at the opportunity to work with the committee on meaningful reforms. But he lamented that the Senate Government Operations Committee moved the current draft forward despite feedback from sheriffs and their representatives about the harm it would cause rural communities and the state.

“Sheriffs are expected to do more, with less, and do it better. Reducing and constraining funding has a storied history of bad outcomes,” Anderson said in an email. “This bill will have profound impacts on Vermonters.”

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