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Chittenden Sheriff Faces Challenge From His Own Deputy

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Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin

Kevin McLaughlin was 34 and second-in-command at the Chittenden County Sheriff's Department in 1986, the year he ran against his boss to become the next sheriff.

McLaughlin made a case for professionalizing the county police force, whose three full-time employees sometimes had to use their own cars to transport prisoners: "I said, 'We need to turn this into a business of some kind.'"

Sheriff Ronald Duell, who'd held the job for a decade, promptly fired his challenger, but the young lieutenant beat him anyway.

Now 66 years old and the longest-serving sheriff in county history, McLaughlin is facing a primary challenge from a man who until recently was his second-in-command. Michael Major said he wants to expand and reinvigorate the department.

"Right now, it seems we're in a regression mode," said Major, who has called for more full-time deputies and longer-term police contracts.

Major, 52, isn't exactly a newcomer; he's worked in the department for 34 years. But he's been eyeing McLaughlin's seat for more than a decade. "Everybody knows that I want to be the sheriff," said the soft-spoken Shelburne resident. While he acknowledged that it's been uncomfortable to take on his own boss, "I don't want to be running when I'm 70," he said.

Major's message to McLaughlin: "You've had more than enough time to make your mark."

Vermont's 14 sheriffs are elected to four-year terms, and state law doesn't limit how long they may serve. Chittenden's is one of five contested sheriff primaries on August 14; Addison, Bennington, Caledonia and Orleans have races, too. But Major is the only candidate mounting a challenge from within.

It's a risky move on his part and one he's already paying for. When Major came back from a vacation in early July, McLaughlin told him he'd been "temporarily demoted" from captain to become one of approximately a dozen deputies.

"After 22 years of being the No. 2 man, I'm now the No. 0 man," Major said. Before the demotion, he oversaw the department schedule, assigning deputies to perform various duties. Now he takes orders from a lieutenant and spends most of his days shuttling prisoners to and from court.

McLaughlin said he took this step to "eliminate any conflict of interest." Asked what kind of conflict, the sheriff offered a hypothetical: An officer running for his boss' job might turn down requests for the sheriff department's services in an effort to spread discontent with the current sheriff. "If I'm running against [an incumbent sheriff], and I have the ability to make [that person] look bad, what's to stop me from doing that?" McLaughlin asked.

Walking through the cage-like door into the sheriff's South Burlington office is a bit like stepping back in time; McLaughlin's Dell laptop and printer are the only items that indicate it's no longer 1987. Framed black-and-white photos on the wall document McLaughlin's long history with the department. One shows his father, Earle, who was sheriff of Chittenden County for 22 years and ran the county jailhouse at 220 Main Street in Burlington. McLaughlin and his 10 siblings grew up there, helping their mother cook meals and do laundry for the inmates, until it shut down in 1969.

McLaughlin, who has associate's degrees in accounting and law enforcement from Champlain College, went to work for his father in 1973. By then, regional correctional facilities had replaced the county jails, and instead of presiding over the jailhouse, sheriffs began shuttling prisoners around the state for court appearances and other purposes.

Another photo on his office wall shows McLaughlin, then 28, graduating from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. He's with his dad, also an academy alum, and William Webster, director of the FBI at the time. The younger McLaughlin put his skills to use when his father's successor, Duell, lent him for a year to a federal drug task force.

When he returned, McLaughlin ousted Duell, whom he says mismanaged the finances. The young cop set out to modernize the department, creating a formal payroll system, hiring more full-time deputies and purchasing much-needed equipment. Today, he has 21 full-time employees, 10 part-timers and a fleet of 25 cars.

Each sheriff's office in Vermont gets an annual appropriation from the state. Chittenden County receives approximately $700,000 for sheriffs and their deputies to transport prisoners, mental health patients and juveniles in state custody, as well as to deliver legal paperwork, including subpoenas, divorce papers, eviction notices and restraining orders. McLaughlin estimated that the Chittenden department serves papers to between 4,000 and 6,000 people a year. His base salary of roughly $85,000 comes from those state funds.

Another $300,000 of the Chittenden County Sheriff's Department budget comes from the county. Jericho, Westford and Underhill — all towns without local police departments — contract with McLaughlin for law enforcement services.

Public and private entities also hire sheriffs to direct traffic during construction projects and to serve as security officers at concerts, proms and other events. These gigs generate more income for the department, as well as an additional $10,000 to $40,000 a year for McLaughlin. 

Michael Major - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Michael Major

Major wants to grow that supplemental business. If elected, he said, he'd seek out more such contracts, particularly year-round ones. For example, the Chittenden sheriff currently provides one officer to serve as a school resource officer at Mount Mansfield Union High School for $52,500 per year. "I'd like to see an SRO at every school," Major said. If a school shooter were to show up, that person would be "the first line of defense," Major said.

He said that extra income would bring greater financial stability to the department. A state-mandated audit, which excludes some state and county funding, shows that the department brought in $1.4 million in revenue last year, but with nearly $1.7 million in expenses, it fell short by about $270,000.

The department has $1.7 million in assets, according to the audit.

McLaughlin defended his department's size — and its balance sheet. "Bottom line is, we're fiscally sound," he said. "We have never gone into financial crisis here since I've been sheriff, nor will we as long as I'm sheriff."

Taking on new business would require new hires. In fact, Major believes the office is already understaffed, in part because his boss isn't doing enough to find recruits. "I think the last time we actually put an ad in the paper was maybe eight years ago," Major said. He wants to hire another eight to 10 people and said he'd start seeking candidates at job fairs.

"We're down about 2.5 positions, but we can still meet all our needs," said McLaughlin, adding that "We've put ads in the paper in the past and hardly gotten anything back." He contended that hiring is a challenge for many police departments, a problem he attributes to animosity toward police officers nationwide and younger generations being less willing to work nights and weekends.

"I know he thinks we should be bigger, and whatever, but he hasn't done anything to accommodate that," McLaughlin said of Major. He pointed out that juggling all those contracts — he estimated they have about 50 — is a complex task and questioned whether his challenger had the "business acumen" to handle it all.

"I think I'm ready," said Major, who recently earned a bachelor's in business science from Champlain College. His wide-ranging responsibilities as the No. 2 officer included purchasing cars and other equipment, coordinating schedules, supervising the training of new deputies, and applying for state and federal grants. As sheriff, Major said, he'd volunteer more with local organizations, such as Women Helping Battered Women.

What's on McLaughlin's agenda if he gets reelected? He said he wants to continue loaning an officer to work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — an arrangement he put in place in 2006. He's also eager to oversee a new full-time highway safety coordinator — a new role for his department — and pointed to his work advocating for arraignments held via video feed from prisons. Those arraignments are controversial among public defenders and some lawmakers because they limit defendants' ability to confer privately with their attorneys.

The lifelong Burlingtonian, who easily beat Champlain College adjunct criminal justice professor Ed Cafferty in the 2014 primary, has plenty going for him. He's racked up endorsements from a who's who of local Democratic politicians, including Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. "He's got deep Burlington roots, which has always impressed me," said Weinberger.

But Rep. Ben Joseph (D-North Hero), a retired judge and public defender who is backing Major, thinks the deputy has a good shot. "I think he's fairly well known in the community," said Joseph, describing him as both "persuasive and personable."

Others are reluctant to take sides. "I respect and like both of them," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George. She sees McLaughlin at monthly police chief meetings, where he's an active participant and "always up-to-date with the newest stuff in the legislature." Before he was demoted, Major was the point person whenever her office needed the sheriff to transport an inmate or deliver a warrant. "It's always been handled efficiently and professionally," she said.

"That we may lose either is sad to me," George went on, but "frankly, it's the backbone of our democracy ... If Mike believes he can do a better job, he should run against Kevin."

Even some McLaughlin supporters give Major credit for running. "I think he's really raised the profile of the office," said Donovan. "I think Mike's got good ideas, and Mike's time will come, but right now I think it's still Kevin's time."

If he wins, would the incumbent sheriff restore Major's rank? "We'll see what happens," McLaughlin said.

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