BENNINGTON — All three declared candidates for Bennington County sheriff say the next occupant of the office should be more visible than the incumbent has been. Even the lieutenant whom outgoing Sheriff Chad Schmidt has endorsed agrees.
Beau Alexander, James Gulley Jr. and Joel Howard, all vying for the Democratic nomination, have emphasized to varying degrees the importance of transparency in the sheriff’s department, and how they would promote it if elected in November. No Republicans filed to run in the primary election on Aug. 9.
Alexander, most recently a security account manager at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, said the sheriff’s department should post public records on its website so the community can better understand what it does. He gave as examples the agency’s financial records, personnel disciplinary records and Brady letters, which document credibility issues with law enforcement officers.
“Instead of waiting for a record request, how about we put the record that’s available where it’s a click of a mouse away,” Alexander, 38, said.
Gulley, 43, an officer with the Manchester Police Department and instructor at the local technical school district, said sheriff’s deputies should wear body cameras as part of being accountable to the public.
Howard, 49, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s department, said he wants the agency to improve public communication by creating a Facebook page and publishing press releases more often than it does now.
They all agree that an important component of transparency is that the sheriff is visible and available to his constituents.
Where’s the sheriff?
The incumbent sheriff, Schmidt, 46, is not running for reelection after 13 years in office. Yet, he casts a long shadow in the race because of questions about his presence in the county and his commitment to the job.
VTDigger reported in February that Schmidt had made remarkably few public appearances since the pandemic reached Vermont in March 2020. Some town officials complained they hadn’t been able to arrange meetings with him to discuss their security contracts with the sheriff’s department. His agency’s key partners said they hadn’t seen him in person since the spring of 2020.
Meanwhile, public records show that Schmidt and his wife bought two properties in Tennessee in 2020, and his family has relocated out of state. The couple also dissolved their businesses in Bennington County.
The Schmidts’ property purchases in Tennessee took place about a year after the sheriff was accused of a conflict of interest in a domestic violence case. The criminal defendant argued that a sheriff’s deputy shouldn’t have been involved in the investigation because the complainant was a woman with whom Schmidt had allegedly exchanged sexually explicit messages and had once alerted about a forthcoming warrant for her arrest.
Schmidt denied the allegations at the time and said the messages hadn’t come from him.
Schmidt didn’t respond to VTDigger’s multiple requests for an interview earlier this year. But he acknowledged to local media that his wife and children have moved to Tennessee, and he apparently shuttles back and forth.
He leads an agency that has about 35 personnel, including nearly 30 law enforcement officers.
Schmidt’s last public appearance to be photographed by local media took place in February 2019, when he was sworn in for his third elected term as sheriff. But Howard asserted that the sheriff goes to the office most days.
“None of us would lie for him,” Howard said of the sheriff’s deputies. “When he's here, he's here. When he's not, he's not, and we don't control that. There's nothing that says he has to be at the office all the time to run the department. When he's out of town, we're still in contact with him.”
Gulley said an effective sheriff has to be visible to the community.
“You should be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Gulley, who lives in Bennington. “You should be out in town. You should get out of your car and do foot beat, and go up to people. We, as law enforcement officers, should be approaching people, not waiting for them to approach us.”
Alexander, a Shaftsbury resident, said that if elected, he’ll set up quarterly gatherings to inform people of what the sheriff’s department has recently accomplished and to involve them in the agency’s projects.
Howard said he’s been attending town selectboard meetings around the county and would continue to do so, and would also participate in public events. He lives in Pownal.
Alexander, who previously worked for the state Department of Corrections’ probation and parole offices, said his priorities as sheriff would include fighting substance abuse and bullying in schools, raising awareness of mental health problems and promoting criminal justice reform.
Among Gulley’s plans is to get the department accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which he said would help improve the delivery of public safety services and open more access to grant funding. He also wants to further the department’s commitment to fair and impartial policing by hiring a more diverse staff and creating a citizen advisory board.
Howard similarly wants to prioritize substance abuse issues and mental health problems. He also wants sheriff’s deputies to get better benefits and additional training, such as advanced first aid, so they can respond to medical emergencies if they arrive at an incident before an ambulance does.
No to 5% fee
A notable promise that all candidates made is to plow back into the agency’s budget tens of thousands of dollars they would be entitled to keep themselves, as sheriff.
A portion of the sheriff’s department funding comes from taxpayer dollars, but even more comes from contracts with courts, state agencies, town governments, schools and private entities, such as businesses. Under Vermont law, sheriffs are allowed to take up to 5% of these contracts’ cost as their administrative fee, on top of their state salary.
For instance, in 2018, according to a report by the Vermont Auditor’s Office, the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department earned $1.16 million in contracts. Five percent of that is $58,000.
Alexander, Gulley and Howard said that, instead of taking the fee, they’d put the money back into the department to cover expenses such as equipment, personnel training and special projects.
Howard described as “decent” the sheriff’s base pay, which will go up to about $94,000 this July 3 for sheriffs who have obtained Level III law enforcement officer certification. The salary is 10% less for those who aren’t certified.
Alexander thinks the 5% system can breed undesirable conduct, because it can drive a sheriff to make money by amassing contracts. He said there’s a risk of creating a “melting pot” for corruption if deputies, for instance, are issuing questionable traffic tickets because the sheriff promised to deliver a certain quota to a partner town.
“I don't think that it should be a money-making opportunity for the sheriff,” he said.
Alexander also said he’d concentrate on putting the sheriff’s department on the “right track” before getting his Level III certification. Howard and Gulley are already certified.
Gulley asserted that he was the first candidate to propose not taking the 5% fee, when he first ran for sheriff in 2018, and that his opponents this election season have followed suit.
“It seems like whatever I come out with, there seems to be a repeat kind of thing,” he said.
Gulley finished second to Schmidt in the 2018 general election for sheriff. Alexander, who also participated in the three-way race, finished third.
The candidates’ strengths
Gulley said that, besides his 20 years of law enforcement experience, he’d bring strengths in financial management, understanding of human resource law and policy analysis. He underscored that he has a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University.
Alexander said his work experience in Chittenden and Bennington counties includes dealing with people from a wide range of backgrounds. He said his African American heritage has also given him unique insight into what unifies people regardless of their differences.
Howard believes that, as an insider at the sheriff’s department, he has a unique position in the race. He said he already knows the agency’s inner workings, the department personnel and their contract clients.
Howard said he does not think being associated with Schmidt hurts his campaign because locals know him as straightforward and honest. At the same time, he wishes his boss were more present to constituents.
“Why wouldn’t you be?” he said. “You’re holding a position that’s elected by the county.”
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