Sheriff candidates ride in on reform, unseat incumbents in Windsor, Orange counties

  • Ryan Palmer campaigns on the Democratic primary ticket for Windsor County sheriff at the polls in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. Palmer won the Democratic primary and will face incumbent Republican Michael Chamberlain in the general election in November. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • George Contois (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/10/2022 12:12:27 AM
Modified: 11/10/2022 12:12:22 AM

Voters on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley signaled they are ready for some changes in law enforcement as two longtime sheriffs were both ousted from their jobs on Tuesday by challengers critical of the way the departments are run.

Ryan Palmer, a Ludlow police officer and chair of the Windsor Selectboard, decisively defeated Mike Chamberlain, 74, who had held the Windsor County sheriff’s job across five decades.

And in Orange County, part-time sheriff’s deputy and retired Vermont State Police trooper George Contois squeaked out a win by a hair-thin margin of 102 votes over four-term Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak.

Both challengers were previously Republicans ran this year as Democrats against Republican incumbents who had not been challenged in decades.

In Windsor County, Palmer received 15,629 votes, or 57.12% of the total, compared with Chamberlain’s 9,824 votes, or 35.90%, according to preliminary results from the Vermont secretary of state’s office.

In Orange County, Contois received 6,602 votes, or 46.66% of the total, compared to Bohnyak’s 6,500 votes, or 45.94%. The Orange County tally also shows that 1,020, or 7.21% of voters, left their ballot blank for sheriff.

Palmer, 36, ran a high-profile campaign — high-profile by the tradition of normally obscure sheriff races, anyway — by spending more than $25,000 of his own money on Facebook ads plus raising $5,000 in campaign contributions to press his view on a more assertive law enforcement role for the sheriff’s department.

Contois, 72, by contrast, spent only a few hundred dollars on campaign signs but counted on his longtime familiarity in Orange County and pointed criticism of Bohnyak’s allocation of resources and priorities for the sheriff department, which he argues have been misplaced.

“I’m very grateful to the people of Windsor County that have put their trust and faith into me for this position, and I’m going to do everything I can to make them proud of me,” Palmer said Wednesday.

Chamberlain, in a statement conceding his loss, nonetheless called the outcome a “win for me personally.”

“I get to slow down and spend time with my family — my wife, my daughter and my grandson,” he said. “I am looking forward to a change in my daily focus.”

And in what sounded like a dig at his successor, Chamberlain said he hopes “things go well for the deputies that will remain at the department.”

(Critics contend that Chamberlain ran the Windsor County sheriff’s department like it was a family business, employing both his wife and daughter in administrative jobs at the department’s Woodstock headquarters.)

Palmer, who defeated Windsor County sheriff’s deputy Thomas Battista in the August primary, said that his immediate priorities in assuming office early next year will be to get body cameras for officers and launch a public-facing website for the department and social media presence, two things that Chamberlain eschewed.

Longer-term, Palmer — who ran on the slogan “stop policing for profit” — reasserted his campaign message that he wants to shift the sheriff’s department away from its customary practice to generate revenue through issuing speeding tickets and instead contract with towns to provide them essential policing services they can’t afford on their own.

Historically, Vermont’s sheriff departments have played a limited role in law enforcement in the state by enforcing speeding laws on behalf of towns, transporting inmates to court appointments and providing courthouses with security.

But Palmer wants sheriffs to get more involved in crime fighting.

“I want to expand the scope of the policing contract to better reflect the view I’m hearing, that people want higher-quality law enforcement in rural communities,” Palmer said.

Meanwhile, Contois in Orange County holds a more traditional view of the sheriff’s department. but he emphasizes shifting resources and priorities within the department to have a more visible presence in the community.

He has been critical of the need for a “special investigations unit” which Bohnyak established to investigate sexual abuse of minors, contending there is not enough sex-related crime in Orange County to justify its full-time staffing costs.

The potential threat Contois’ challenge posed to Bohnyak, 65, who has been sheriff of Orange County for 15 years and hasn’t faced an challenger since he was first elected in 2006, was foreshadowed during the August primary when 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.

Given the slim 102 votes by which Bohnyak lost, it is not known whether he will seek a recount. In order to seek a recount, the candidate must file a petition with the county Superior Court within seven calendar days of the election.

Neither Contois or Bohnyak responded Wednesday to messages seeking comment.

Contact John Lippman at

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