Incumbent Bennington County sheriff facing primary challenge

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BENNINGTON — Both candidates in the Democratic primary race for Bennington County sheriff seem confident as the election approaches that will likely determine who wins the post.

With no other announced candidates, attention is on incumbent Sheriff Chad Schmidt and his challenger, police officer and law enforcement instructor James Gulley Jr.

Schmidt is seeking his third four-year term, after being appointed to the post in 2009.

Previously, he served in the Sheriff's Department for more than two decades, moving up through the ranks prior to his appointment to succeed former Sheriff Gary Forrest.

Gulley is a former Bennington Police Department officer and has since worked with the Manchester Police Department as part of a regional drug task force involving several police agencies.

He also has served as law enforcement instructor at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center in Bennington.

While Schmidt has stressed his experience and the growth of department programs, equipment upgrades and facilities since he became sheriff, Gulley said he sees the department as stagnant and in need of new direction.

His campaign has been "received with open arms," Gully said this week. "Numerous town officials, law enforcement administrators, and citizens of Bennington County are looking forward to the establishment of my pro-active, cost-effective services."

He added, "Too many feel that my opponent is complacent, too reactive, not evolving to meet the needs of today's circumstances."

Schmidt said of the race, "I think the campaign is going well and [reaction] has been positive when we've explained what we've done over the last nine years."

His campaign "has been a positive one, and I am proud of that," Schmidt said. "I am pretty confident and looking forward to the vote."

The incumbent added that he is proud of his staff for their professional effort during the election season, when the future course of the department necessarily remains uncertain.

Promises new vision

"I am against complacency," Gulley said. "I argue against those who feel that our Sheriff's Department has gone far enough within our county. I know it can do better. The Sheriff's Department has accomplished a great deal, but through my leadership it can do better."

During the campaign, Gully, 39, has proposed creation of two specially trained teams within the department, he said, one working with officers from other agencies on drug investigations and a second to do interdiction work to interrupt the flow of illegal drugs into the area.

To cover the cost for those changes, Gulley said he'd "roll back" into the department budget a 5 percent administrative fee that is designated for the sheriff in contracts for services the department provides.

This effort also would be partly funded through the drug trafficker asset forfeiture program the federal government oversees, in which the local agency would keep 80 percent of the amount seized, Gulley said. And he would seek grants and pursue fund-raising efforts.

After serving 14 years with the BPD, Gulley said he accepted the position teaching at the career center and has worked simultaneously with the Manchester department focusing on drug investigations around the county with the Vermont State Police Southern Vermont Drug Task Force.

He said his policing experience, plus a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Castleton University, make him uniquely qualified to pursue his vision for the department.

24 years with department

Schmidt, 42, was appointed by former Gov. Jim Douglas in 2009 to fill a vacancy created when Forrest retired. The incumbent won election to his first term in 2010 and was re-elected unopposed in 2014.

"I feel that I have delivered on the promises and that I've led this agency in a good direction, and that my leadership shows results," Schmidt said in launching his campaign.

He cited his 24 years in law enforcement, which began as a part-time Sheriff's Department deputy. Schmidt said he has experience at all levels of the department and has pursued training and educational opportunities.

He said those factors help him oversee recent expansion of programming and deputy training and upgrades for department facilities and equipment. Schmidt said the most visible change involved the new department headquarters, located in a former auto dealership building on Route 7 south in Bennington.

The building, which the county purchased, replaced leased office space on Lincoln Street. That purchase in 2014, he said, is saving the county $10,000 a year over the lease costs, and the property will be owned outright by the county in about 10 years.

Schmidt also cited conversion of 12 of the 20 primary department patrol vehicles to propane fuel, along with installation of a propane station on the property, allowing the purchase of fuel in bulk.

Within the department, Schmidt said the county has increased the training budget to offer more classes to deputies, including training in prevention of bias or the perception of bias in the community. He said the department also is expanding online training options; implementing an automated billing, scheduling and time card system online, along with new internal financial controls to meet accounting standards.

The revenue to fund the department comes from contracts with governments for policing services and traffic control contracts with government or private entities, along with some grant funding, Schmidt said. There currently are 34 full- and part-time deputies and three office staff members.

The incumbent said other roles he has filled in the community over the years "give me sort of a broad range of people in the community to network with and bring resources to them, and they bring resources to me; so it's really served us well to be able to serve in those capacities."

He has served on several community boards and is secretary/treasurer of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association.

Schmidt holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Southern Vermont College; attended the Vermont Police academy, the National Sheriffs' Institute and the FBI National Academy.

In 2016, he received a master's degree in public and business administration from Columbia Southern University.

For more information on Schmidt, go to www.keepschmidtsheriff.com.

For information about Gulley, go to http://www.gulleyforsheriff.com.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.




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