Crime and Justice

19-year-old student challenges Bennington County high bailiff in primary election

William Greer, at right, speaks with Bennington County residents Sebenele Ndlangamandla and Eric Hatch at an event Greer organized in Bennington on May 20. Photo by Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — For the first time since 2014, Bennington County has a contested election for the oft-overlooked position of high bailiff.

The incumbent, Frederick Gilbar, 65, is a local law enforcement officer of almost four decades who unseated the prior high bailiff in 2014. He is being challenged in the Democratic primary by William Greer, 19, a Bennington College student who is from Texas.

An incoming sophomore at the college, Greer is making his first run for public office to advocate for systemic changes in Vermont sheriff’s departments. He'd like the departments to be supported by more public funding, rather than pursuing money-making service contracts to flesh out their budgets. 

He also wants a change in state law to require that sheriffs live in the counties they serve. Right now, there’s no requirement that either sheriffs or state’s attorneys live in the counties where they’re elected.

“I feel like this burning sense in my heart and my mind, where it's like, there's something that can be done, and no one's doing it,” Greer said.

Gilbar, a sheriff’s deputy in Bennington County, declined to be interviewed or to comment on Greer’s candidacy. Gilbar said he has been the high bailiff for some time and locals already know him. 

Gilbar, who lives in Bennington, has been re-elected high bailiff three times since he won the position in 2014. The office carries a term of two years. 

Before joining the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department in 2011, he had been with the Bennington Police Department since 1984.

The high bailiff, an elected position unique to Vermont, has limited responsibilities and rarely any day-to-day tasks. 

One is to serve writs, or legal papers, that the sheriff is deemed incompetent to serve. 

Another is to detain the sheriff should a warrant for his or her arrest be directed to the high bailiff. While the sheriff is confined, or if the position becomes vacant, the high bailiff would take over the sheriff’s duties until the incumbent returned or a new sheriff was sworn into office.

High bailiffs are not paid a salary.

Greer, who moved to Bennington from McAllen, Texas, last August, acknowledges that his vision for the high bailiff position is quite lofty. But he said public servants should be motivated to act beyond the job description.

“We’re really losing out on a lot of potential to be a change-maker,” he said. The high bailiff, in particular, “has this huge potential to be a check on police power.”

Greer said he decided in March to run for high bailiff  for several reasons. He said a contested election will make voters consider their choice. He also thought that, by running for office, he’d get to know local residents better.

He said he also wanted to dispel some people’s notion that Bennington College students are “rich,” “elitist” and concerned only about themselves.

Greer highlights a couple of his local community involvements. Earlier this year, he was elected treasurer of the Bennington Town Democrats. He has also been appointed to the town’s inaugural Community Policing Advisory Review Board, which would have some oversight of the Bennington Police Department.

Asked if he considered running for sheriff, Greer said he did not, because it’s a full-time job he couldn’t do while in college. Three men are vying in the primary to be Bennington County sheriff — a position that doesn’t require the holder to be a law enforcement officer — since Sheriff Chad Schmidt is not running for reelection.

The uncertainty of whether Schmidt still lives in Vermont has prompted Greer to think that state law on this subject should be amended. He said it should explicitly require sheriffs to live in the counties where they’re elected.

“I think it should say you have to live in the county that you're representing because you're working for these people, you're protecting their lives,” he said.

Greer also believes more public dollars should go to sheriff’s departments, so they can refrain from going after contracts to fund their operations. The sheriff is entitled to keep up to 5% of the contract costs, and Greer thinks that system has the potential to breed conflict of interest between the department and its clients.

Though some people regard the high bailiff as an antiquated or merely ceremonial figure, Greer thinks it’s a position that could be suited to the times.

“I see it as our county’s way to restore faith in law enforcement by having an active high bailiff who's not afraid of standing up to the sheriff, something Mr. Gilbar has failed to do,” Greer said.

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Tiffany Tan

About Tiffany

Tiffany Tan is VTDigger's Southern Vermont reporter. Before joining VTDigger, she covered cops and courts for the Bennington Banner from 2018 to 2021. Prior to that, Tiffany worked for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and spent more than 10 years working for newspapers and television stations in Manila, Singapore and Beijing.

Email: [email protected]

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