By MIKE DONOGHUE, Islander Staff Writer
NORTH HERO - The Vermont Court Administrator’s Office has developed a temporary plan that would allow the Grand Isle County Courthouse to be open four days a week beginning later this month.
Under the plan, the courthouse would be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, according to Scott Griffith, the chief of planning and court services for the state.
The new system could begin as early as Oct. 18 and “will remain in place until a more permanent solution to the security shortage can be found,” Griffith told The Islander in an email this week.
Court Administrator Patricia Gabel ordered the historic courthouse closed Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays beginning Aug. 1 because her office was unable to find a law enforcement officer or a suitable screener to work at the front door.
Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen had notified Gabel’s office in April that he would not renew the security contract because of the retirement of a deputy sheriff. Allen said he was short on personnel and nobody in his department was willing to take a pay cut to fill the court job.
Gabel’s office was unable to find a solution over the 3 months and locked the doors starting Aug. 1.
Griffith said the judiciary will be “temporarily reassigning management personnel who are authorized to perform courthouse security functions to be onsite at the Grand Isle courthouse on these days.”
It is believed that State Court Security Chief Rob Schell, who also is a deputy sheriff in Grand Isle, will be helping to fill in on the extra days.
The courthouse has limited access on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People are allowed to drop off items at the front door with the security officer.
The new plan was good news for some of the officials that have been leading the charge to get the courthouse fully re-opened.
“This is a start,” said State Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle/Colchester. The state’s senior senator said more work needs to be done by the judiciary and legislature to try to ensure the needs are addressed.
Mazza said Tuesday he was alerted Monday evening that a possible plan was ready. He said he is interested in moving forward and not looking back on who is to blame. He has been talking regularly with Chief Administrative Judge Brian Grearson on the issue.
Grand Isle County State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito said he was unaware of the settlement until contacted by The Islander on Tuesday morning.
“I want to thank all the residents and government and state officials that rallied. This is a step in the right direction,” DiSabito said.
He frequently maintained -- at meetings and in emails to Gabel and others -- that Grand Isle county residents were not getting equal access to justice -- something the Vermont Constitution requires.
The Grand Isle Selectboard initially proposed a county-wide meeting on the closing issue and DiSabito later helped organize and moderate the session last month. Gabel did not attend the two-hour meeting, but sent three high-level officials from her office to field questions from town officials, state legislators, law enforcement and local taxpayers.
“We are exploring the helpful suggestions that were offered at the recent meeting and are preparing a detailed memo as a follow-up,” Griffith said.
“Our assessment of these suggestions is that they would be longer-term to implement than the security solution we have identified, though they may be needed in the future,” he said.
Teri Scott, director of trial operations, Gregg Mousley, chief of finance and administration and Schell were assigned to attend the meeting and help deliver a possible plan.
Griffith stressed Vermonters have access to justice available in Grand Isle through a variety of means, including by phone and email.
That is the message that the Court Administrator’s Office has been pushing since closing the courthouse, but one current judge, Ned Spear, and one retired judge, Ben Joseph, were among those that offered pushback at the public meeting last month.
During the county-wide meeting it was explained to the state court officials that abused women running from their abusers may flee to the courthouse for safety, but could find the doors locked three days a week. The women would have no place to turn -- especially if they don’t have transportation or computers, the court officials were told.
Some Grand Isle officials and residents had said they have little faith in getting the Court Administrator’s Office to re-open the courthouse again fulltime. Some saw the security issue as a way to move to a regionalized court system, which was proposed in the early 1990s and eventually rejected.