Updated at 8:40 p.m.
Vermont’s 14 county sheriffs will begin operating under new rules now that Gov. Phil Scott has signed a bill reforming the centuries-old office.
Those included assault charges against a Franklin County deputy sheriff who was subsequently elected to the top office and now faces impeachment; sexual assault charges against a now-former Addison County sheriff; the Caledonia County sheriff’s distribution of $600,000 in staff bonuses shortly before leaving office; and a now-former Bennington County sheriff’s admission that he’d regularly been working out of state since the pandemic started.
Scott signed the bill Wednesday morning but did not immediately comment on it.
Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson, president of the Vermont Sheriff’s’ Association, said the group “supported a significant portion” of the bill. “While some changes were short-sighted, we’ll remain diligent to the services we continue to provide Vermonters,” he said in an email.
The measure underwent numerous changes in the Senate and House over the course of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers, sheriffs and their supporters eventually found common ground on the most contentious portion of the bill: how sheriffs can use the overhead fees they earn for managing their departments’ business contracts.
Sheriffs currently have the option of charging up to 5% of a contract’s value, then adding that full amount or a fraction of it to their own salaries. Whatever’s left is rolled into their department’s budget.
The new law allows sheriffs to keep using the fee to increase their salaries — or those of their staff — as long as they follow a forthcoming model policy. Willful failure to comply would be regarded as misconduct.
Until the model policy takes effect in January 2024, the fee can be used to increase personnel salaries under limited circumstances. For instance, it can augment sheriffs’ pay by up to 50% of their annual salaries, but only if they’ve been in office for at least two years.
“I think that giving them some flexibility with these overhead fees was important,” Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans City, chair of the House Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee, previously said when asked how the House version of the bill was able to earn the sheriffs’ support after they’d rejected the Senate version.
To help sheriffs implement the model policy, the law creates a new position at the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs: director of sheriffs’ operations. The person in that role will also support sheriffs in areas such as budgeting, policy development, training and office management.
The new law also delves into auditing protocols. The moment a sheriff loses reelection, or announces they are resigning or not seeking reelection, all the department’s payments and transfers of assets must be co-signed by at least one of the county’s two assistant judges to create checks and balances.
The departing sheriff must also provide the county judges and a couple of state offices a list of department payments and transfers of assets that go to a single source, when such transactions total more than $10,000.
The law now requires every sheriff to maintain a detailed record of his or her work schedule, including days off and any remote work outside their area of jurisdiction that lasts more than three days. (The provision followed VTDigger’s 2022 reporting that then-Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt appeared to have spent significant portions of his tenure with his family in Tennessee.)
Sheriffs are currently not required to fill out timesheets. As elected officials answerable only to voters during elections, they decide how much time off to take each year, when to do so and where.
The law also adds disclosure requirements for sheriffs. Every year, they must inform the state ethics commission of sources of income that exceed $5,000 — though not the amount — as well as those of their spouses or domestic partners.
The disclosure information must also include the name of state-funded boards or bodies on which sheriffs serve and any state contracts held by sheriffs, their spouses or domestic partners.
Key legislators have emphasized that S.17 is only the first step in the Legislature’s efforts to bring greater transparency and accountability to sheriffs’ departments, some of which earn millions of dollars a year through contracts with public and private organizations.
In the recently concluded legislative session, the Senate proposed an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would set qualifications and removal procedures for sheriffs and several other elected county officials.
That proposal, PR.1, remained with the Senate Government Operations Committee at the end of the session.
To be adopted, an amendment to the Vermont Constitution must first be approved by the Senate and House in two successive bienniums, meaning a general election is held in between, before the proposed amendment goes before voters.