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Gulley Moving to Reinvigorate Sheriff Department Operations

February 22, 2023

BENNINGTON - "I would say I am very honored to be here," said new Bennington County Sheriff James Gulley Jr. "We have a great staff. I'll tell you the last approximately two weeks would have been quite difficult without them."

Gulley was elected in November and took office Feb. 1. He is the county's first new sheriff since 2009, replacing Chad Schmidt, who did not seek reelection.

Gulley spoke during an interview this week, along with Stephannie Peters, director of administration for the sheriff's office, about plans to reinvigorate the organization and staff.

The new sheriff was reluctant to criticize Schmidt, who admittedly was in the process of moving his family to Tennessee over the past few years and spent weeks there periodically working remotely. But Gulley said, "Do I agree with the absence? No, I do not. I am here every day, I am in my uniform every day. I am here serving every day."

That's something Gulley said he wants to stress, and he vowed to fully engage with the communities the department serves, as well as with residents who have questions or concerns.

Schmidt was heavily criticized toward the end of his last four-year term for "disappearing" from the many public appearances at events that marked his earlier years in the office.

Gulley added, "Can I say there was a massive fall-out of an infrastructure within the organization? No. But currently, the staff – [office manager] Jude Shaughnessy, [administrative assistant] Carolyn Graves and others – are amazing; they have worked so hard. Due to the [prior] circumstances they have put in the effort, and I am very proud to work with them."

He said that goes for the patrol division as well, and "all the other individuals who are currently on our roster."

Gulley said he and Peters were "stepping into a system in place and learning from Jude and Carolyn about the intricacies of the business side of things. We're very thankful; they have been very patient with us, because you are forced to learn very quickly and sometimes asking questions that might appear to be naïve."

A few employees have decided to leave, he said, while some had failed to keep up with their required training hours as part-time deputies and were told they could not continue.

"Those who are now working at the department; they are here because they care about the communities, they care about the organization, they care about the mission, and they care about the vision," Gulley said. "And they care about the new, that's here now."

There also were two retirements and two full-time deputies resigned, Peters said, adding, "That's to be expected during any transition in an office."

The department is therefore in the process of filling some open positions, Gulley and Peters said. An offer for a full-time position has been made to a trained officer, and a new trained officer is starting next week.

One of those who resigned was former department Lt. Joel Howard, who was one of two other candidates for sheriff in the Nov. 8 election. Gulley finished first in the countywide voting, Howard second and Beau Alexander third.

Howard has since accepted a position with the Windham County Sheriff's Department.

Gulley said he has "nothing bad to say about any person who has left," adding that he would only discuss the professional differences with Schmidt over how the department should be operated, which he aired during two campaigns for the sheriff's office.

Gulley and Alexander both unsuccessfully challenged Schmidt for the office in 2018.

Gulley said he's in the process of speaking to and meeting with town officials about their service contracts with the department, which are renewed annually.

He has spoken to Dorset, Stamford, Readsboro and Sunderland officials and plans to meet next week with the Pownal Select Board.

"Those avenues of conversation have been neglected, and those avenues of conversation are so important, especially if you are paying for a service," he said.

"We are stressing face-to-face communications," Gulley said. "And I want them to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly, because that is what we need to know in order to improve."

Each town contracting for patrol or other services also is being asked to respond to a survey on whether the department is serving the applicably, whether the services provided are of value and how services might be improved.

The outreach initiative has prompted "significant feedback from our survey," Gulley said.

Among other tasks the new team is dealing with are an aging fleet of patrol cars, Gulley said, estimating that the average vehicle mileage is in the 90,000 range.

"Right now we are in good shape; we are not in excellent shape," he said.

"The fleet is old, it is aged, and we are in the process of repairing and also in the process of purchasing and we are communicating with other law enforcement agencies in Vermont who have very nice equipment," Gulley said. "We are establishing those relationships with them."

The department is considering hiring a part-time mechanic to help maintain the department's fleet, including work on weekends or evenings. The department also contacts with Alonzo Bisson of Bisson's Auto Repair of Pownal for vehicle maintenance.

Peters said one goal is to make the fleet safe "particularly for the requirements of the job," which include trips to and from Dorset, where the department provides patrol services.

She and Gulley said they are examining all department operations for possible savings or streamlining. That has included assigning a deputy who is a resident of the Manchester-Dorset area to patrol in Dorset to cut down on travel time to the office in Bennington.

"We are trying to right-size" the organization, Peters said.

Other than the county government funding, the department also receives much of its funding through contracts with towns or businesses for patrolling, traffic control, security, prisoner transport and other services.

Addressing an area where Vermont's sheriff departments have received criticism, Gulley said that, although a sheriff can keep a 5 percent management fee on all department contracts, he intends to put that money into the budget for expenses like new vehicles and equipment.

From what he has learned from speaking with sheriffs and others in those county departments around the state, the sheriffs feel the 5 percent management fee is needed to bolster their income, he said.

The sheriffs feel this way, he said, in part because there are dispatchers working for the state who make more than the sheriffs who are running law enforcement organizations.

While Schmidt utilized that legal provision in obtaining contracts for the department, Gulley said, "My intention is to keep that 5 percent in the operating fund, because there are things that we have to pay for. We also need to add, for instance, body cameras."

Gulley said Peters is submitting a grant application to fund body cameras for deputies through a program that requires a one-to-one match from the department.

"We have to have money to do that," he said "And we have to have money to purchase vehicles for our fleet."

There are more than 30 vehicles, Peters said, "some of which we are utilizing regularly, some of which we are not using at all ... So again, we are right-sizing our fleet to make sure we can meet are needs."

Gulley said he is working with the two elected Bennington County assistant judges, Brian Peat and Mary Frost, on continuing efforts to have a vacant, boarded-up building on the Sheriff's Department property off Route 7 south of town – which once was an auto dealership – demolished.

The assistant judges oversee the county budget and management of the sheriff's department buildings and the Superior Courthouse on South Street.

Demolition of the former showroom building, which Gulley said is expected to move forward, will clean up the site.

"We're had wonderful communications with the assistant judges," he said. "We were asked to put forth kind of like a wish list of things we would like to have done."

"What I have learned is that certain things in this organization were quite siloed in a way," Gulley said of past department operations. "What I mean by that is that everybody had their own particular – or many particular - roles, but they were captured within those confinements. Whereas, right now we are around – metaphorically speaking – a round table, and we are all consulting with each other about the current methods of how the day-to-day operations are run."

He added, "We have now implemented a stronger set of checks and balances, both external and internal, and as well as financial. And we are all offering our input, rather than one person."

"Also, Stephannie is talking to people interested in a proposed community advisory board for the department," he said. "Informally, people are approaching us and saying they want to be part of this."

A citizen advisory board was one of the goals Gulley set out during his election campaign.

"As with any effective transition – you look at systems," Peters said of the process thus far. "You look at policies, you look at people, look at your facilities, and you say, 'what are we doing,' 'what do we need to be doing,' 'how can we do this better?' And I think Sheriff Gulley has been very active with that the last three weeks."

She added that they will meet this week with someone about re-establishing the department's social media sites.

That will enhance transparency, Gulley said, and allow direct communication the community about department programs, news; services and job opportunities.

"I want people to know we are here; I am here," Gulley reiterated. Concerning needs or issues, he said, "We will get right on it.

"First and foremost," he said, "if you have a concern or a complaint, stop in; I am here."

Compliments of: The Bennington Banner Jim Therrien