As archaic as the town fence viewer and as arcane as a presidential tweet, the generally sleepy elections of Vermont’s high bailiffs are attracting unusual attention this year.
Competition for the unpaid and generally unperformed county position has sparked a broader discussion following a summer of national protests centered on the killings of Black suspects by police and calls for racial equality.
Strictly construed, the high bailiff in Vermont has a very limited obligation: to arrest the county sheriff if he or she commits a crime and to fill in for that sheriff in case of arrest, death, or early resignation until the governor appoints a successor.
Marc Poulin, who is seeking a fifth term as Washington County high bailiff, said he has not been called upon to perform any of those statutory duties in his eight years on the job.
Poulin, a Republican who lives in Barre Town and is a lieutenant with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, faces a challenge this year from Asa Skinder, a Middlebury College sophomore who lives in Montpelier.
Skinder entered the race when he noticed that no Democrat was named on the primary ballot in August. He mounted a write-in campaign and received about 100 votes, qualifying him to compete in the general election.
Skinder said he understands the constraints of the office but wanted to run to give voters a choice and, like other progressive candidates for the office in Addison, Orleans, and Windsor counties, sees the potential for the high bailiff to use that platform to discuss the role of police in local communities.
“People should vote for me if they want, as high bailiff, somebody who will listen to the community and believes that we should think critically about how law enforcement exists in our community,” Skinder said.
Poulin said there is no authority for a high bailiff to do anything beyond what the statute describes and he believes that the high bailiff should have a working knowledge of law enforcement operations, though that is not required.
“Those who are saying that the high bailiff has any oversight of the sheriff’s department are making it up out of thin air,” he said. “Don’t try to say the job is for oversight when it clearly is not.”
Poulin said the office holder should be able to run the department in the event that the sheriff, in Washington County’s case, Sam Hill, is removed, dies, or steps down.
While rare, that actually happened in Washington County in 2004, when the Sheriff Don Edson resigned following a plea deal in a felony fraud case. Bailiff Philip Anthony took over until Gov. Jim Douglas named a replacement.
“It’s a very good reason why you need a trained law enforcement officer in the position,” Poulin said. “For the day-to-day role of doing nothing (as bailiff) you don’t, but in that one case if you are not a law enforcement officer and you don’t know how the sheriff’s office runs, functions, is funded, all of it, then you are in big trouble.”
Skinder, a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter and the call to examine police funding, said he doesn’t believe the high bailiff needs to be a law enforcement expert in order to serve a few days until the governor appoints a replacement. He also believes having a member of the department take over for their boss is a conflict of interest.
“The way I see the position is it should be a non-law enforcement citizen holding the position and having mostly what is symbolic oversight of the sheriff’s department,” he said. “But I think when it comes down to it we shouldn’t have someone associated with, or on the payroll of, the sheriff’s department of their superior to oversee. I think it’s important to have a choice that wouldn’t be a conflict of interest.”
For Washington County voters who haven’t already cast ballots, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. November 3.