By Rep. Gina Galfetti
You can kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer. But should you?
Though the Constitution says precious little about them, sheriffs in Vermont are constitutional officers. Article 2, Section 50 provides:
Sheriffs shall be elected by the voters of their respective districts as established by law. Their term of office shall be four years and shall commence on the first day of February next after their election.
And Section 53 reads:
The manner and certification of election and filling of vacancies in the offices of Assistant Judges, Sheriffs, State’s Attorneys, Judges of Probate, and Justices of the Peace shall be as established by law.
That’s it! Nothing about the duties of sheriffs, their compensation, or their ability to do the job. Everything else is left to the discretion and supervision of the legislature, which, in the past, has made reasonable provision for the sheriffs to fulfil their duties. The “districts” referred to above turn out to be the fourteen counties, which, in effect, makes sheriffs county officers. Since they are county officers, it follows that the counties are left to provide office space for their sheriffs and to provide for such jail facilities as the respective counties deem necessary.
The duties of the sheriffs are assumed to be those which the sheriff had under the English common law—primarily law enforcement and service of legal process. In addition to these powers, the legislature has added the duty to transport prisoners to state correction facilities in various parts of the state. County jails are now mostly just temporary holding facilities.
The base salary of sheriffs—set by the legislature—compares unfavorably with the salaries of a number of state police officers. The state appropriates nothing for the ongoing expenses of a sheriff’s office; in Washington County, the county does contribute about $250,000.00 per year for operating costs. The sheriff is responsible for everything else, including uniforms, vehicles, training, equipment, legal support, etc. One expense which might not generally be considered is the cost of professional malpractice insurance, since the sheriff is personally liable for the misdeeds of his deputies! No wonder that sheriffs are careful about whom they hire and consequently find it difficult to hire and retain qualified staff!
To compensate sheriffs for their base salaries and for all remaining operational expenses, sheriffs enter into contract services with municipalities that have no police force of their own and with private companies requiring police services, such as highway construction firms and some entertainment venues that attract large crowds. Sheriffs are permitted to retain up to five percent of the income from these contracts, which can be used at their discretion; the sheriffs can spend it on such things as additional equipment or training for their department or salary increases for their deputies, or they may even retain the entire five percent for themselves, though few do that.
These arrangements have worked satisfactorily for many years, but recently a number of actions that some might consider abuses have caused fresh attention to be drawn to the sheriffs. The recently elected sheriff in Franklin County has been accused of assaulting a prisoner in custody and will likely stand trial despite his position as sheriff. The former sheriff in Bennington County was absent from Vermont for a large part of his last year in office; he has now moved to Tennessee. In his last days as sheriff, the former sheriff in Caledonia County used $400,000.00 of accumulated proceeds from contracts to give himself and his deputies bonuses. And having been defeated for re-election, the former sheriff in Orange County virtually stripped his office before his term ran out, leaving his successor with a mostly non-functioning department. The legislature has taken notice.
The question is easy: How do you fix problems like these? The answer is more difficult. Assaulting another person, even a prisoner (if that is what was done, which will likely be decided by a jury) is already illegal; I don’t know that another law is needed. I suppose the law could require sheriffs to be physically on the job a certain percentage of the time, otherwise forfeit some salary or perhaps forfeit the office. As to the bonuses, one person might think they were excessive (I don’t know the individual amounts), while others might think they were entirely reasonable. And how one writes a law that would effectively require a defeated candidate to cooperate in the orderly transition of power beats me—perhaps ask Donald Trump?
Unfortunately, the need to find reasonable and workable solutions to these purported problems does not constrain the tendency of this present legislature to “do something—even if it’s wrong!”
On Tuesday, the Senate Government Operations Committee voted out and sent to the Appropriations Committee bill number S.17. It contains a number of provisions. First; it would still allow sheriffs to keep up to five percent of the proceeds of contracts, but those funds could not be used for salaries; but a new, nine-member committee to be known as the “Sheriffs’ Departments Oversight Task Force” is created to study, among a list of other things, “creating a sustainable funding model for sheriffs’ departments that is not based on contacts for services.” The committee is mandated to report its recommendations for legislative action not later than November 15, 2023, and the committee is slated to be dissolved on July 1, 2024. Meanwhile, it should be noted, that the compensation of sheriffs will be effectively cut until the legislature takes action, and there is no promise that the legislature will take any action at all to compensate sheriffs fairly.
Another provision of S.17 compels sheriffs to provide security services at state and county courthouses at a fixed rate of $51.00 per hour. That covers overhead as well as salaries for the deputies who actually do the work. I don’t know whether that’s a fair rate, but I do know that auto mechanics, appliance technicians, and even some house painters, charge more. What I do know is that it is wrong for the state to compel someone to perform services and then to say “this is what we’re going to pay, and no more!”
But it gets worse: the bill also mandates that sheriffs “providing law enforcement services in the county in which an individual…has a relief from abuse order [in a domestic matter] shall have a duty to assist in the retrieval of personal belongings of the individual…from the individual’s residence.” Furthermore, the sheriff is expressly prohibited from seeking a fee for that service! Whew! I thought that we passed a constitutional amendment just last November prohibiting slave labor!
There are several other provisions of this overkill of a bill. It requires sheriffs to account for all of their time; I don’t know any other elected official who is required to keep a time sheet—certainly not legislators! The bill provides that as a sheriff prepares to leave office, voluntarily or involuntarily, all of that sheriff’s office disbursements must be co-signed by the side judges of the county. These provisions treat elected officials like children!
The bill also abolishes an existing committee known simply enough as the Sheriffs’ Executive Committee. But it goes on to give the now-abolished Sheriffs’ Executive Committee authority to deal with conflicts of interest. One wonders how closely the senators who voted for this bill actually read it.
Without doubt, there have been some problems among sheriffs lately. But this bill goes way too far in trying to apply a legislative sledge hammer to what is primarily a human problem. What it does do—and does very effectively—is demonstrate a profound hostility toward sheriffs on the part of a few senators!
There are a few good parts to this bill (very few), such as mandating a code of ethics for sheriffs. Beyond that, I would prefer to trust the voters to choose their sheriffs more carefully than they have done in some cases in the past.
Gina Galfetti is a Representative for the Washington/Orange District and can be contacted at:
802.461.3520 or email@example.com.
Categories: Rep. Gina Galfetti's Floor Report