On February 1, 2023

Sheriff reform needed; not so easy

By Angelo Lynn

Editor’s note: Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison County Independent, a sister publication to the Mountain Times.

A bill introduced last week to reform the way Vermont sheriffs operate is a step in the right direction, and sorely needed. Currently Vermont sheriffs have an unseemly way of earning money and very little effective oversight — a combination ripe for abuse.

S.17, the act related to sheriff reforms, was proposed in the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, chair of the committee and one of the 10 cosponsors of the bill, noted the uniqueness of the sheriff’s salary arrangement. Not only are sheriffs awarded a handsome salary, but they also have add-on contracts for special events of all sorts — from directing routine traffic flow during road work, to working sporting events like road races, to providing additional security. 

“Some literally increase their own salary, and it’s the only office in state government that has such a provision,” Hardy said. 

Nor is there a direct community board to provide oversight. Sheriffs are elected in a county-wide popular vote and serve at the will of the people. But because Vermont has no county government, there is no effective way to directly govern their actions. The only person who has a direct say over the sheriff is the High Bailiff, who has two responsibilities: 1) has the authority to arrest the Sheriff, if that ever becomes necessary; and 2) he is to take over the Sheriff’s Department in the event that the elected sheriff cannot continue to perform their duties for whatever reason.

This became an issue in Addison County this past summer when Sheriff Peter Newton was arrested in June on felony charges of sexual assault and unlawful restraint. Newton, who pleaded not guilty, did not seek reelection in November but resisted calls to resign and has remained on the job, though without police powers, until newly elected Sheriff Michael Elmore takes over on Feb. 1.

“That is what really spurred me to want to look into what could we do to provide better oversight for sheriffs, because there just seems to be every few weeks another issue (arises) with sheriffs or sheriff’s deputies,” Hardy said.

Meanwhile, in Franklin County, former Sheriff’s Deputy John Grismore was elected to head that county’s department this past November despite facing a simple assault charge. He is accused of using excessive force in August, after he was recorded on video kicking a man in the department’s custody, according to the VtDigger story. Grismore, who has denied any wrongdoing, will take office in February. The only way Franklin County residents can get him removed is through impeachment by the state Legislature.

The lack of board or professional oversight can only be considered an egregious shortcoming. The police chief of any town or city, for example, not only serves under the town manager, but also the selectboard of that community. 

It seems obvious that county sheriffs should be held accountable in similar ways. 

But it’s not that easy. Why? Because the state constitution limits lawmakers’ oversight of sheriffs since they are elected members of another branch of government.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who also co-sponsored S.17 as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told VtDigger his committee “started out with higher goals, but every time we tried to look at some area, we were rebuffed by constitutional separation of powers.” 

Sears said state legislators were “studying other options they have to institute better checks and balances on sheriffs’ departments, and that the bill “also directs the Vermont Secretary of State and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs to study potentially restructuring county sheriffs’ departments.”

In the meantime, S.17 will add a few guidelines for the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to consider when evaluating police certifications, including “gross negligence or willful misconduct in the performance of duties” as well as “abuse of the powers granted through law enforcement officer certification.”

That’s a start, but until sheriffs can be dismissed outright for unprofessional behavior — just as a policeman, police chiefs or state troopers can — the state won’t have done enough.

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