By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
The public was blocked this week from attending a meeting hosted by Vermont Court Administrator Patricia Gabel to answer questions from state legislators about the judiciary’s unexpected closing of the Grand Isle County Courthouse three days a week.
Several legislators encouraged The Islander to attend the virtual meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday because of the serious concerns locally about limited judicial access. However, Gabel never responded with the contact information before the meeting or offer a recap after. Her assistant said she did not have access to the sign-in information for the meeting.
State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito and Sheriff Ray Allen also were among those left in the dark. DiSabito said he asked to be included, but was told it was for legislators only. Allen said he was never notified of the meeting to discuss security at the North Hero courthouse.
In the end about three state senators and two representatives for Grand Isle County, along with a few representatives from Franklin Counties got a briefing from seven judiciary employees about the lack of both money and staffing the court system receives from the state.
DiSabito was disappointed at the public being excluded on an issue of concern in the county.
“I find the fact that the Judiciary set up a meeting solely between their administration and select legislators, 48 hours before the county-wide public meeting, and specifically excluded myself, the Assistant Judges, Probate Judge, the county sheriff and the public, quite chilling to say the least,” the prosecutor told The Islander.
“Public trust and confidence are integral to the credibility of the judicial branch. This is not the way to foster integrity, transparency and accountability with other branches of State government, and certainly not with the public,” according to DiSabito, who worked for the state court system for 6 years before attending law school.
DiSabito said local officials still plan to go forward with the scheduled public meeting at 6:30 Thursday night in the large conference room at the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department in Grand Isle. He said it is still designed to get all the players together to try to solve the problems and make sure everybody has the same information.
Invitations for Thursday night were sent to area state senators and legislators, Sheriff Allen, Assistant Judges Joanne Batchelder and Sherri Potvin, Probate Judge George Spear, other court personnel, including Gabel and Chief Administrative Judge Brian Grearson. The selectboards in the island towns also have been invited to attend and the public also is welcome, he said.
The flap developed when Gabel’s office ordered the historic county courthouse shutdown beginning Aug. 1 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until further notice because the judiciary was unable to find anybody to work at the courthouse door.
The word about the shutdown began to surface the Friday afternoon before the implementation.
In late April Sheriff Allen had sent an email to the Court Administrator’s Office notifying the state that his department would be ending its annual security contract this summer because a longtime deputy doing the job was retiring. Allen indicated there was nobody in his department to fill the courthouse slot.
During the next 3 months the Court Administrator’s Office was unable to find anybody to do security and that’s when the decision was made to keep the court open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays with interim security. Gabel said the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department was not interested in staffing the post.
Part of the debate is whether an armed police officer is needed at the North Hero courthouse entrance or whether somebody without law enforcement experience and no weapon could be hired to run the metal detector.
The Court Administrator’s Office now has acknowledged it was aware of other possible staffing issues in at least 3 other courthouses by mid-July. They were the civil division in Franklin, Orleans and Windham Counties and the full courthouse serving Essex County.
The courthouse closing has creeped into meetings of Grand Isle County selectboards because taxpayers are concerned about the lack of services for island residents. Grand Isle Selectboard Chair Jeff Parizo proposed the joint meeting as a way to get everybody under the same roof and providing answers, while trying to find solutions. DiSabito later agreed to try to coordinate all the interested parties.
During the Isle La Motte Selectboard meeting last week, local resident Sylvia Jensen questioned whether the town needs to pay its full county tax this year when the courthouse is now open only 40 percent of the time.
While the judiciary in Montpelier may have known for a long time about the proposed cut in security services, an email from the Chief of Trial Court Operations makes clear that Grand Isle officials were left in the dark until the last minute.
On Friday afternoon July 30, just before the lockdown began, Tari Scott emailed several members of the judiciary branch asking that a sign be put on the courthouse door and to put a message on the judiciary website.
“We will also need to notify the State’s Attorney and the GI bar of this change as well as the Probate and Assistant Judges,” Scott wrote. She added that the presiding Superior Court Judge, Robert Mello, also should be alerted.
“We should anticipate a rapid response from the State’s Attorney and possibly the Assistant Judges. The Island Newspaper may be looking for information as to the swift locking of the building without notice. We should be prepared,” Scott wrote in her email.
DiSabito has said -- and Judge Grearson confirmed -- that he never got the official word about locking the courthouse 3 days a week until the evening of Monday Aug. 1, after the first full lockdown day. The notice came from Grearson as a courtesy trying to make sure he was aware of the decision in case the Court Administrator’s Office did not reach out.
Mello, after he was notified, sent an email to Gabel, Scott, Grearson and others on Aug. 1 that it might make sense that the Assistant Judges, the county clerk, DiSabito, county legislators and members of the bar be asked for suggestions.
“They probably won’t think of anything you haven’t already thought of, but they deserve at least to be consulted,” Judge Mello wrote.
DiSabito said the issue comes down to fairness and equal treatment, something the courts like to say they endorse.