Do Vermont sheriffs need more oversight? What a new bill would change

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 6:17 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Are Vermont sheriffs in for more oversight? Lawmakers are considering it.

“As a lot of Vermonters know, there have been some issues with sheriffs across our state,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison County.

Bill S.17 was introduced to reform oversight of Vermont sheriffs’ departments and spending.

Lawmakers refer to incidents in Franklin and Rutland counties, among others, as the elephant in the room sparking a legislative look.

“The goal is to provide a little more oversight of sheriffs, to professionalize sheriffs,” Hardy said.

The bill would allow for new ethical and operational guidelines and standards for sheriffs and their deputies to uphold. Reviewable by the Criminal Justice Council, it would also eliminate a 5% rule which allows sheriffs to keep 5% of the cost of a contract and use it for administrative duties, ranging from putting the money back into operational costs to bonuses. It’s something critics say is too open and allows too much flexibility in their spending.

“This is not against the law; it merely raised some equity issues not only with state employees but with deputies around the state,” Vt. Deputy Auditor Tim Ashe said.

Vermont sheriffs are elected officials and their departments operate independently. They have no direct oversight from a state body and contract their services, ranging from security for courts to providing secure transport or supplement patrol.

The Vermont Sheriffs’ Association testified Tuesday.

“People have seen the media coverage on the various instances. The Sheriffs’ Association opposes the bill because it doesn’t address any of those issues,” said Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association.

The Sheriffs’ Association says they are ready for reform, but not like this. They say cutting the 5% rule hurts departments that use that money to cover costs. They instead want some oversight, better training and better funding.

“The reason we want to do those things is because it is better for the people we serve,” Anderson said.

Anderson fears changing too much about the structure of sheriffs’ departments and spending would ultimately hurt more rural communities, where sheriffs can provide law enforcement contracts for towns without police departments.

He says they have proposals of their own to offer the Legislature, something lawmakers say they look forward to hearing.

“Need to hear what they have to say and hear from others,” Hardy said, “and make sure that we can move something forward that will help the sheriffs and help Vermonters.”

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