SHAFTSBURY -- Members of the Shaftsbury Select Board expressed on Monday that, regardless of their personal feelings, the much-discussed issue of using the town's constables as law enforcement officers should be left up to the voters.
"A new situation"
"This is a new situation for Shaftsbury because we've never had a certified officer run for election," said Karen Mellinger, chairwoman of the Select Board. The town has been debating for the last several months the pros and cons of using the town's two constables for law enforcement in Shaftsbury, rather than the Bennington County Sheriff's Department, which the town currently contracts with.
One new development in the debate is the discovery that, according to state statute, in the case of a constable who is a full-time certified police officer in the state of Vermont, as Shaftsbury's current first constable Paul McGann is, the town does not have to vote to give them law enforcement authority. The constable would have it by default, and the town could only vote to take it away. "If they had the budget, our constables would have full law enforcement authority within Shaftsbury right now," said Mellinger.
Town Administrator Margy Becker agreed with this interpretation of the law, but also thought it was important to note that she believed that this was, "an unintended consequence of the legislation."
Selectman Mitch Race thought the issue merited more discussion. "We've been talking about the garage and other things, and we've talked about this around the edges," said Race, but he wanted to see a more substantive discussion, and hear the opinions of community members, on the issue.
According to Mellinger, the town of Pownal pays $41,000 each year for a full-time constable. In Shaftsbury, however, the constables would only work 20 hours, exactly what the town contracts out to the Sheriff's Department today. In the fiscal year 2014 budget that was decided on at last March's town meeting, Shaftsbury budgeted around $19,000 for the Sheriff and $200 for the constables. However, the town is projected to overspend the Sheriff's budget, as the federal grant that was subsidizing that cost expired at the beginning of November, and the new six-month contract that the town negotiated is at an unsubsidized rate.
Mellinger also noted that while the two constables were currently either trained or undergoing training, and owned many of the necessary pieces of equipment for law enforcement, such as guns and holsters, the Select Board would have to budget for the position, not for the individuals. Mellinger expressed that she strongly believed the issue needed to go before voters, but, based on information currently available to her, she foresaw a cost increase.
Selectman Tim Scoggins was doubtful about the town's need to make the switch. "I need to be convinced why we need to do this," he said, "What I need to hear is this: What's the upside? As we go through the numbers, I think we're going to be looking at a bigger number."
Paul McGann and Robert Perry, the town's two constables, argued that localizing the police force would benefit the town. "If something happens, we live here," said McGann, "We respond from our homes, in Shaftsbury. Not our homes in Manchester. We go to the ball games, kids see us, people see us." McGann also pointed out the difference between a deputy, who might be familiar with the area, to the intimate knowledge of the town that someone in his position would have. "I know what truck you drive," he said, gesturing at Selectman Ken Harrington, "and I know that you have a daughter at the school," he said to Scoggins.
"I'm all in favor of having deputies, and state police, and constables all working together," said McGann, "but when someone out there says it's all or nothing, I can't control that." McGann was referring to comments made by Sheriff Chad Schmidt at a Select Board meeting in October, when he indicated that if the town authorized its constables to have law enforcement authority, he would not negotiate a new contract with the town, citing potential confusion over jurisdiction.
Becker was critical of the constables' framing of the argument, saying, "I think we need to back off this Constables versus Chad Schmidt theme."
Mellinger agreed with Scoggins, saying, "I, like Tim, would really need to be sold." Mellinger brought up how positive the community response to the sheriff's services has been.
McGann argued that all the sheriff's department was doing for Shaftsbury was writing speeding tickets, and brought up a recent situation in Woodford as an example of another local community who wasn't completely satisfied with the Sheriff's Department. Perry thought the conversations with the board were going in circles, and the town should vote on the issue, which Mellinger agreed with.
While the town will need to seek legal advice before warning a vote at the Town Meeting in March, the issue would likely involve changing the position to the three-year, appointed position, rather than a one-year, elected term. This would give the constables more security, and allow the town to hire certified officers, which would keep the cost of training down.
Arguing that the constables are more of a part of the community than the deputies, McGann said that the constables could go to the schools, direct traffic on Buck Hill Road at the end of the school day, and be an ever-present resource inside the community. "I don't see the sheriffs in the schools," he said.