By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
GRAND ISLE -- Three staff members from the Vermont Court Administrator’s Office provided few solid answers for area legislators, local officials and residents during a two-hour meeting on how to re-open the Grand Isle County Courthouse with fulltime service.
Gregg Mousley, chief of finance and administration said he along with Teri Scott, director of trial operations and Rob Schell, state court security manager, would bring back to Montpelier the comments they heard to try to find a solution. He did say he doubted there would be any immediate action.
The Grand Isle Selectboard had proposed the regional meeting after Court Administrator Patricia Gabel ordered the North Hero courthouse closed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays due to the judicial branch not having any contracted security beginning Aug. 1. Grand Isle residents at a couple of meeting expressed the lack of access to the courthouse.
Some like State Sens. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle/Colchester and Randy Brock, R-Franklin/Alburgh, Rep. Michael Morgan, R-Grand Isle/West Milton and Selectboard Chairs Josie Henry of Alburgh and Jeff Parizo of Grand Isle tried to be taskmasters at the meeting. They pressed for specific answers on solving the issue last Thursday night, but came away empty handed.
Mazza said he was less interested in the mis-steps by the judicial branch as he was in getting the courthouse doors open 5 days a week. He said he wanted to know if the issue could be solved with more trained personnel and/or more money.
Morgan and Henry, who are both retired from the Air Force, said in the service objections are identified and answers found. What could be done? they asked.
Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen notified Schell in late April that the uniformed deputy sheriff that has served at the courthouse in North Hero was retiring this summer and the department had nobody to fill the spot. No deputies were interested in taking a pay cut to leave road patrols to work the courthouse details, Allen has said.
Mousley said even if somebody is found to screen people at the door, there was no guarantee the court would be fully open. He blamed COVID-19 and said there is an issue with ventilation at the historic courthouse in North Hero.
Vermont Superior Court Judge George “Ned” Spear and retired Judge Ben Joseph said public access to the judiciary is needed -- and not over a phone or having to drive to St. Albans. Joseph said some people don’t have phones, computers or email. Spear said he sometimes does not have phone access at home.
Mousley disputed the claim a few times during the night.
“Well, you know, as time passes, as I said, we don’t need a courthouse to provide justice,” he said.
The groans and grunts from the audience was clear they did not agree with his assessment.
State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito, who served as moderator for the night, said he thought that was the quote of the night.
South Hero Selectboard Chair David Carter, a retired lawyer, said it was clear Scott, Mousley and Schell do not understand the importance of local justice.
“They don’t get it. It’s white privilege. If they understood they would know how poor people are throughout Vermont,” he said.
Carter said he thought the three were “arrogant and Pat Gabel is as guilty as any of them.”
Gabel was invited to the meeting, but did not attend. Gabel’s delegation did not say why she was missing or offer any comments on her behalf.
Mousley did say this is not part of a long-sought effort to close some courthouses and going to a regionalization. He said there are now 7 out of 23 courthouses in the state that are facing closures or reduced hours due to lack of security personnel or ventilation questions that surfaced from COVID.
He did say Grand Isle County has become the most vocal.
The others are the Essex County courthouse, Franklin civil in St. Albans, Orleans criminal and civil in Newport, Windham civil in Newfane, Washington civil in Montpelier, and possibly Windsor criminal in White River Junction.
The turnout filled the conference room at the sheriff’s office. Local officials were part of the audience, including a large number of selectboard members, including two towns with quorums. Four of the 5 selectboard members from Grand Isle attended, while 3 came from North Hero. Isle La Motte was the lone town with no representation.
Franklin County Sheriff Roger Langevin said he attended the session because he is concerned about future contracts for the two courthouses in St. Albans that he provides security.
He said he almost did not renew his contract the last time, but after a weekend of thinking agreed. Langevin said he later was hit with a 5.8 percent increase in the retirement system that he is now paying out of his pocket.
“I’m losing money,” he said. “We need to pay our people.”
He said the courthouse contract is $29 an hour, while other contracts, including patrols in a half dozen towns are at $56 an hour.
It was clear that nobody was happy with the way Gabel’s office handled the case -- and some remain unhappy with how the court is operating.
Grand Isle County Assistant Judge Joanne Batchelder noted that in 3 relief from abuse hearings earlier in the day, the court had trouble conducting the remote hearings. She said the presiding judge was in Barre and there were issues with people unable to submit documents. At one point the court computer system, called Odyssey, shutdown, she said.
She also said she likes to see the faces of the people and not just listen over a phone.
“It’s not the way justice should be done,” Batchelder said.
DiSabito said he was concerned that the Court Administrator’s Office had set up a contract with a private communications company led by Denise Casey that has cost $59,000 over 10 months and is still in place. He said the money might be better spent on improving security contracts instead of expanding the court’s communications committee.
Casey also serves on the Vermont Judicial Nominating Board, he said.
Carter said after the meeting he is concerned that the court Administrator’s Office is going to use the ventilation system issue to close the courthouse permanently.
“I don’t think the suits from Montpelier have been in there to look at it,” Carter said.