Wolcott Weighs Policing Future After Committee Implodes

by Doug McClure

WOLCOTT – When Wolcott appointed residents Andy Duff and Rick Harkins to the law enforcement study committee for Lamoille County in March, the committee seemed ready to wrap up its discovery phase and finalize its report. But during its March 31 meeting, committee chair Duncan Hastings abruptly resigned, effectively disbanding the group.

According to official minutes, Hastings and committee member Diana Osborn disagreed about the content of Hastings’ draft report, with Osborn believing “there were a lot of subjective comments mixed in with factual information.”

Hastings wanted the content in question moved to an appendix. Osborn expressed concern about a report Duff and Harkins would be required to “rubber stamp” based on the work of others. Harkins said he agreed and wanted to do more research on the findings.

According to the meeting minutes, “Duncan [Hastings] said he has no interest in providing a report that is comprised of five or six different members’ opinions. If that is the path the committee wants to take, he will resign tonight. He is not willing to be associated with something he thinks contains some factual errors. Diana [Osborn] is leaving on a trip so there is some urgency to get this done. He has taken it about as far as he wants to.”

The minutes say Hastings resigned shortly after that. “He doesn’t feel the committee is making reasonably good progress. He said he doesn’t want the work he drafted used in conjunction with the committee’s report and he does not plan to submit his work independently.” Osborn said she “doesn’t think the committee necessarily has to submit a report, but she thinks it would be a disservice to the select boards not to.”

That was the situation that Wolcott’s select board faced on April 7, with the law enforcement committee in tatters and a nearly quarter century, three-town partnership for law enforcement in question.

According to chair Linda Martin, Wolcott, Hyde Park, and Johnson have coordinated closely on law enforcement since the 1970s, starting under Lamoille County’s then-sheriff Gardner Manosh. The sheriff’s department has since then provided police service for Wolcott residents, though recently citizens have raised questions about coverage and responsiveness.

Duff said bluntly that “it seems the committee is defunct” and wondered what to do. “We should pursue whatever is in Wolcott’s best interests, and the committee, — I don’t know that that’s important to us any longer. Hardwick has lost a contract with Greensboro, and it seems that they may be open to making an offer to us that might be in our favor,” he told the board.

Vice chair Kurt Klein said that while it was “unfortunate” the committee disbanded, “I don’t think we should disband our efforts in understanding what is in Wolcott’s best interests. I think there is a lot of work yet to do.”

Klein suggested reviewing the unapproved material and statistics offered by former chair Hastings and weighing options, including the Vermont State Police, Hardwick, and Morrisville for law enforcement services. “I think it’s just in our best interests to really pursue what opportunities are out there and equally important what the deliverables are there — what does the town of Wolcott really need from law enforcement, and who can best serve that?”

He later returned to the subject and said, “I don’t know that we have that with [the] sheriff right now, I have not seen any document that really clarifies what the deliverables are from the sheriff’s department.”

Duff said that “the state police are only going to come when you have a serious incident. If somebody complains their car is missing from their driveway, it’s not going to be at the top of their list.” He said he would be willing to approach Hardwick and Morrisville for an offer.

Duff said that, based on his own experience as a first responder, in any major incident all the agencies would show up. “I hate to use this word, but ‘nickel-and-dime’ [incidents], husband and wife who are arguing and fighting and somebody to needs to come out, that’s what we need coverage for,” he said.

Chair Linda Martin said a major concern raised to her by residents was speeding. Klein said that, as he understood it, the focus was “traffic control, physical presence, visibility. That is very important, being able to respond to day-to-day activities that are required from policing. Good access and some efficiency.”

Martin said that the town’s emergency manager Ryan Bjerke expressed interest in the committee, but the board had already appointed Duff and Harkins. She wondered if the three could get together and start working on a plan while coordinating with town administrator Randall Szott. Both agreed, and Szott said another person had expressed interest and he would contact them.

Klein was in favor of moving forward with a group that was “Wolcott-centric” and said, “We don’t know where Johnson and Hyde Park are going to go after this resignation.”

Duff asked if anyone had approached Morrisville and Martin said that in the past “they’ve been kind of like ‘we don’t need you,’ but maybe things will be different [with a new administrator being hired].” She added, “I really respect their chief of police, he does a good job.”

The board approved continuing exploring options for Wolcott. Duff and Harkins will work with Bjerke on progress to address the town’s law enforcement needs more directly.