Primary Preview: Chittenden County sheriff's race centers around staffing

Published: Aug. 13, 2018 at 5:33 PM EDT
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Vermont voters head to the polls for the state's primary Tuesday. And many will have to decide who they want as sheriff. Five counties have contested sheriff's races: Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Orleans and Chittenden.

The Chittenden County race pits a member of the sheriff's department against his boss. Having contested sheriff's races is a bit rare. In Chittenden County, the Democratic ballot will have not one but two candidates this time. And this race may be causing some bad blood within the department.

"I was hurt," Chittenden County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Major said.

Major came back from a vacation to find out that he was being demoted from chief deputy to deputy.

"Three minutes into the meeting I was handed a temporary reduction in rank, authority and pay from the sheriff," Major said.

Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin says it was to avoid any potentially nasty politics.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Why demote him?

Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin: In the current situation, it was more to avoid any conflict of interest... It was only temporary; he knew that.

But staffing and contracts are more of a sticking point for Major, who has been with the department for 34 years. Before his demotion, he ran the department's scheduling for decades.

"If you're on the outside looking in, sure, everything looks great. You don't really hear about the fact that you don't have enough staff. We have 24 cars but not enough bodies to drive them all. So they're sitting in the office just costing money," Major said.

He says he would be more proactive about seeking out new hires and contracts for his department. Contracts he says are going elsewhere right now.

"Lamoille County sheriff, Orange County sheriff, Washington County sheriff-- they're all up here in Chittenden County doing the jobs that we should be doing," Major said. "We've lost quite a bit of money over the last year."

About $270,000, according to a 2017 independent audit. But Sheriff McLaughlin says much of that was from their equipment depreciating in value. He says the department is getting plenty of contracts and frequently works with other agencies to fill them during the ups and downs of construction season.

"We are fiscally sound," McLaughlin said. "Probably more fiscally sound than any of the agencies in Vermont."

He says his 46 years with the department, including 32 as its chief, speak for themselves. He said the department has grown but there's still more work to be done, especially in making training more accessible for deputies, which he hopes may help with a staffing shortage that affects all departments.

"In today's atmosphere, we're seeing that finding recruits is very difficult," McLaughlin said.

When asked if it is time for new leadership, he asks why?

"I have done everything that is positive for this agency, positive for the county," he said. "We've had such growth. There's been more growth in this agency since I took office than in the last 235 years."

WCAX News asked what happens if McLaughlin gets re-elected. Will he re-install Major's rank? He said if that happens, they will meet to discuss it.