Orange County sheriff challenger pitches reorganizing department

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-22-2022 1:12 AM

CHELSEA — George Contois is well past the age when most career law enforcement officers turn in their badges. At 72, the part-time Orange County sheriff’s deputy could easily tool around with the bush hog or saw wood on his 150-acre farm in Washington, Vt., mowing fields and helping his wife, Mary, tend to her three horses, his son’s two cows and the family’s 17 chickens.

“My doctor says my health’s unusual,” Contois said from his kitchen table recently, overlooking his back fields, noting that he weighs the same 175 pounds he did as a high school student in South Burlington and which he keeps in check by 3 miles of “power walking” six days a week. “I am more than up for the job.”

By “the job,” Contois means Orange County Sheriff, where he is running as a Democrat against his boss, Republican Bill Bohnyak, who has been sheriff for 15 years and hasn’t faced an opponent since he was first elected in 2006.

Bohnyak claims not to be fazed by his deputy gunning for his job.

“Anyone can run for sheriff,” Bohnyak said.

A New Jersey native who moved to Vermont in 1992 because he and his wife fell in love with the Green Mountains while honeymooning in the state 45 years ago, Bohnyak said he’s not yet ready to let go of the reins at the department where he has worked full time since 2001 and part time for five years before that.

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“I feel I still have a lot to offer. I’m in good shape mentally and physically,” Bohnyak, 65, said over coffee at the McDonald’s off Interstate 89 in Randolph last week. “I’d like to see the continuation of the slow but steady growth of the department we’ve had and keep going what we’ve been doing.”

When Bohnyak was sworn in as sheriff in 2007, the department had two full-time deputies and six vehicles. Today, the Orange County Sheriff’s office has 12 full-time deputies and 15 vehicles. The budget has risen from “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to about $1.7 million, he said.

Vermont’s county sheriffs have limited roles in law enforcement. Their primary function is to provide security at courthouses and transport inmates from prison to court and to serve civil warrants, functions paid for by the state, county and private attorneys.

But the department’s main source of revenue — and how it finance operations — comes from contracts with local towns that do not have their own police force to patrol and write speeding tickets. Sheriff deputies also pick up hours by providing safety and traffic control around road construction sites.

Bohnyak called the necessity of sheriff departments soliciting contracts “not ideal,” but he said sheriffs have little alternative given that Vermont does not have county government. The Orange County sheriff contracts with 11 towns, including Randolph Village and the town of Randolph, which dissolved its police force several years ago.

At $340,000, the Randolph Village contract is the sheriff’s office’s biggest, and Bohnyak said deputies assigned to the village conduct 70 to 100 arrests annually.

And although sheriffs are entitled by law to take 5% of the contract amount for themselves, Bohnyak said he does not take advantage of the controversial policy,

“I cross it off,” Bohnyak, a Randolph resident, said. “I don’t take it. Never did and never will. The way I was brought up is you work for your money,” he explained, adding, “if I want to earn extra money, I’ll go out on patrol and put in the hours.”

Contois, who spent 29 years as a trooper with the Vermont State Police — including assignments as an undercover drug officer and driver for the governors Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean — believes that the Orange County sheriff’s department could improve operations by shifting priorities and reorganizing.

Pointedly, Contois questions the expansion and priorities that Bohnyak has championed during his tenure, arguing that the department’s resources could be better allocated.

Among Contois’ two criticisms: the special investigations unit that Bohnyak created in 2008, staffed with two full-time detectives, to investigate sexual abuse and domestic assault crimes, and operating two separate sheriff’s facilities, one on Route 110 in the heart of Chelsea and the second about three-quarters of a mile away in the old Civil War-era jailhouse on Route 113.

Contois is not convinced that there is enough sexual abuse and domestic assault crime in the county to justify the expenditure for a stand-alone unit, and he argued such investigations are better handled by professionals in state attorneys’ office.

“It’s wasted money,” he said.

Bohnyak rejects that notion and points to the SIU — along with introducing the Law Enforcement Against Drugs and Violence anti-drug education program in Orange County schools — among his hallmark accomplishments as sheriff.

He points out that the SIU is funded by a state grant and does not rely upon local taxpayer support. Although there may be a dozen or so cases annually that reach the criminal prosecution stage, Bohnyak said that belies the 100 to 150 sexual abuse cases the unit investigates every year, which can include victims abused years earlier.

“These cases are not simple,” Bohnyak said. “It’s not a traffic accident. They are unique and it requires a special person” to investigate them and communicate with children and traumatized victims, Bohnyak said.

In addition, Contois said he would move to sell the sheriff’s unmarked SIU facility — the former Chelsea Health Center — building on Route 110, which he estimates could fetch $200,000 to $300,000, and consolidate operations at the Route 113 location, which the department leases from the county and where the main office and communications are located.

And in order to provide policing service countywide, Contois said he would divide the county into “zones” encompassing four to five towns each and assign deputies permanently to cover a specific zone in order that residents, businesses and “the farmer down the road” have a police officer they all know by name and can interact with.

By organizing towns into zones, Contois believes, the towns could band together and contract as a group with the sheriff’s department, each paying less than they would if contracting individually with the department.

Contois said he has spent only about $400 on his campaign, mostly on printing lawn signs. But given how Orange County voters voted during the August primary, when each candidate was unopposed, suggests Contois’ candidacy has gained notice.

Contois received 2,478 votes as a Democrat, more than twice as many as the 1,155 votes Bohnyak received as a Republican, according to Vermont Secretary of State office records. Moreover, Bohnyak’s primary vote tally was fewer than the 1,435 votes he received as an unopposed candidate in 2018 primary.

Although Orange County has swung solidly Democratic in presidential elections since 2000, Republicans nonetheless won 38.9% of the vote in 2020, the fifth-ranked GOP turnout among Vermont’s 14 counties.

“It shouldn’t matter for law enforcement whether you’re Democrat or Republican,” Bohnyak said. “I’ve had a lot of support from Democrats.”

Bohnyak acknowledged the primary results showed he faces a potential challenge in winning reelection to a fifth four-year term as sheriff. But he’s not fretting about it.

“If he wins, he wins,” Bohnyak reflected about being challenged by his deputy. “I’m running on my merits, what I’ve been doing and will continue to do.”

The election for Orange County sheriff will take place Nov. 8.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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