SHAFTSBURY -- After months of discussion, the Shaftsbury Select Board has decided not to put any questions relating to the town's constables on the town meeting ballot in March.
The town had been considering several changes to the position, which is required by state law. Currently, Shaftsbury's two constables work very few hours each week, and handle entirely civil duties. The town had been considering changing the term length from one year to two, in order to promote stability in the position, and change the position from elected to an appointed, which would give the select board the ability to hire qualified individuals.
"It had been brought to our attention," said select board chairwoman Karen Mellinger, "that if a constable happens to be a fully-certified law enforcement officer, that constable can perform law enforcement duties within his town, as he wishes. He does not come under the supervision of anyone in the town. The only constraint would be the budget that is put in place by the town."
Paul McGann, the town's first constable, is a fully certified police officer in Manchester. The town's budget for constables is $200, but McGann and second constable Robert Perry had been asking the town to increase the budget and allow them to perform law enforcement actions in the town.
That plan hit a snag late last year, when Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt said that he would not continue to enter into a contract with the town of Shaftsbury to have his deputies patrol the town if Shaftsbury gave its constables law enforcement authority. The sheriff's department is paid $26,000 each year to patrol the town.
The board also discovered a Vermont state statute that requires towns to vote specifically to take away a full-time qualified constables' law enforcement authority, meaning that McGann already has law enforcement authority, and could choose to exercise it.
According to selectman Mitch Race, who had agreed to research the issue, there were three potential ballot items that the select board could put before the town. First, whether to change the term limit from one to two years. Race supported this, stating it would lead to more continuity in the position. Second, whether to change the position from being elected by the town to appointed by the select board, which the board felt would only be beneficial if the board decided to increase the constables' budget to allow them more law enforcement power. Third, was the option for the town to vote to prevent the town's constables from exercising their law enforcement authority.
Race cautioned against the last. "Once that's done, and something happens, the sheriff's contract doesn't renew or whatever, and now we have no one with police authority," he said. Mellinger argued that the town could then go back to the townspeople to re-authorize the constables. Race's final recommendations to the board were to only consider changing the term limits.
"Frankly, I think this is the time to ask this question," said Mellinger, "We have one constable who is certified to do these things right now. The only reason he hasn't is that we've cautioned him that it may not be what the town wants right now.
Selectman Tim Scoggins said that he felt he had no problem with the sheriff's department patrolling the town, and the constables performing the duties they have performed traditionally. Selectman Carl Korman agreed, saying, "because of the Sheriff's position, [using the constables as a police force] isn't really an option. As he said, it's one, or the other."
Town Administrator Margy Becker said that when this issue was first brought up, she felt it was "an opportunity that fell into our laps perhaps."
Korman also noted that, based on many conversations he had had with residents, many were suspicious of the select board's reasoning for making the constables appointed. "We know how you guys on the board work, you're going to appoint someone you're friends with, who's going to do whatever you want him to," said Korman, characterizing the people he had talked to.
After some discussion, the board decided to not put any of the proposed questions on the ballot. Responding to Race's support of changing the term limits, Mellinger replied, "In a way, I'd ask, continuity for what? What are we using our constables for?"
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB