By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
NORTH HERO -- The Grand Isle County Courthouse is now closed Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays due to an inability to find qualified deputy sheriffs or security officers.
Sheriff Ray Allen said he had alerted the Court Administrators Office in Montpelier earlier this summer that his department would likely discontinue having a uniformed deputy sheriff at the courthouse entrance due to lack of qualified personnel.
Deputy Sheriff Kevin Scott, a retired Vermont state trooper, had held the job in recent years, but he indicated he would be moving out of state at some point. Allen said he has been unable to fill that slot and two vacancies for deputies doing patrol work on the roads. The contract with the court formally ended last Friday.
Court Administrator Pat Gabel has made provisions for some security to be available at the historic courthouse on Tuesdays and Thursdays when hearings are scheduled. Hearings are conducted remotely, but legal papers still need to be filed in criminal, civil, family and probate courts.
Chief Administrative Judge Brian J. Grearson sent a note late Sunday night to John Campbell, head of the state’s attorneys and sheriffs, alerting him about the staffing shortage and that the courthouse would be locked three days a week until further notice.
Grearson told The Islander on Tuesday that he had not been involved in the security discussions. He said he had been away for the weekend and didn’t want Campbell caught off guard. The email was sent as a courtesy or heads up, the judge said.
Allen said he has been dealing in recent weeks with Rob Schell, the chief of security for the Vermont judiciary, on ending the contract.
Allen said it was unclear where Grand Isle County residents seeking relief from abuse orders would file the paperwork. He said the sheriff’s office in Grand Isle will continue to help with people filling out the paperwork, but the person eventually has to file it personally at a courthouse. It may mean people seeking protection will have to drive to Burlington or St. Albans.
The Court Administrator’s Office contracts either with the local sheriff’s office or with private security firms to staff entrances at all the courthouses throughout the state. In Windham County the sheriff’s department gave up the courthouse contract in about 2016 because it was losing considerable money having certified officers and the judiciary later went with a private security firm.
In Chittenden County one deputy sheriff is on hand at the criminal court, but the rest are unarmed private security officers and screeners with no arrest powers. Over at the civil court on Main Street one security guard from a private firm with no arrest powers monitors people coming through the metal detector by the front door.
Allen said his remaining deputies were not interested in the job at the North Hero courthouse. Deputies doing road patrols and other work make more money and they would take a substantial cut with the assignment under the courthouse contract, Allen said.
He said his department also recently lost two other fulltime deputies that were working on the road. One joined the Williston Police and the other went into a private sector job.
Allen said he is trying to fill all three slots, but like many other police agencies the number of qualified applicants is seriously lacking.
Allen said he does have enough personnel to handle the patrol contracts with the five towns in Grand Isle County. He has four full-time deputies and a handful of part-timers still working.
“It’s a lack of personnel,” State Sen. Dick Mazza told The Islander on Monday.
Mazza, the state’s senior senator, agreed with Allen that law enforcement agencies are struggling to find qualified applicants in this current atmosphere.
Mazza said he has had several conversations with Judge Grearson on the issue and they have pledged to work together to get the Grand Isle County courthouse back open fully.
“It is not a closure,” Grearson told The Islander on Tuesday.
Grearson said he was not directly aware of what efforts had been done by Gabel’s office. He was aware that somebody did reach out to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department for possible help, but they were unable to help.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Department also is struggling with personnel and staffing. It recently bailed out on the final year of its contract with the town of Georgia.
State’s Attorney reacts
Grearson sent an email Monday evening explaining the situation to Grand Isle County State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito. Most criminal court hearings are held on Thursdays. The courthouse still has not been cleared for trials.
DiSabito said he learned of the closing on Monday after he went to work. He said when he arrived at his office, he saw no cars in the parking lot next door at the courthouse.
DiSabito said he remains concerned that the partial closing is just the latest step in an ongoing effort to fully close the courthouse -- a hot political topics for many years. Sen. Mazza has always said it would be done “over my dead body” including when the supreme court considered the idea.
In a response to Grearson, DiSabito reminded the chief judge that the right of access to justice is fundamental in the Vermont constitution. He said Grand Isle County residents should be afforded the same access to justice as the other 13 counties.
DiSabito also cited the inability by local residents to file a relief from abuse complaints on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the North Hero courthouse.
The prosecutor said he is willing to assist in any way to help get the courthouse fully opened again.
He said he would continue to work with Sens. Mazza, Randy Brock and Corey Parent, along with state Reps. Leland Morgan and Michael Morgan and Assistant Judges Joanne Batchelder and Sherri Potvin. in His email to Greason, DiSabito also enclosed a news story and photo from The Islander covering the recent visit by Lt. Molly Gray.
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