Sheriff’s Nominees Participate in Reform, Unseat Incumbents in Windsor and Orange Counties

Ryan Palmer, left, and George Contois were elected sheriffs of Windsor and Orange counties, respectively, on November 8, 2022. Courtesy photos

Editor’s Note: This story by John Lippman first appeared in the Valley News on November 10.

Voters on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley have indicated they are ready for some changes in law enforcement as two longtime sheriffs were both ousted from their jobs on Tuesday by challengers criticizing the way the departments are managed.

Ryan Palmer, a Ludlow police officer and chairman of the Windsor Selectboard, decisively defeated 74-year-old Mike Chamberlain, who had served as Windsor County sheriff for five decades.

And in Orange County, part-time sheriff’s deputy and retired Vermont State Police Trooper George Contois won a victory by a 102-vote margin over the Orange County sheriff. ‘Orange Bill Bohnyak for four terms.

Both challengers were previously Republicans who ran this year as Democrats against Republican incumbents who had not been challenged in decades.

In Windsor County, Palmer received 15,629 votes, or 57% of the total, compared to Chamberlain’s 9,824 votes, or 36%, according to preliminary results from the Vermont secretary of state’s office.

In Orange County, Contois received 6,602 votes, or 47% of the total, to Bohnyak’s 6,500 votes, or 46%. The Orange County tally also shows that 1,020, or 7% of voters, left their ballots blank for the sheriff.

Palmer, 36, ran a high-profile campaign — well-publicized by the normally obscure sheriff’s racing lore, anyway — spending more than $25,000 of his own money on Facebook ads and raising $5,000 in campaign contributions to make his case for a more assertive law enforcement role for the sheriff’s department.

Contois, 72, on the other hand, spent just a few hundred dollars on campaign signs but relied on his longtime familiarity with Orange County and criticized Bohnyak’s allocation of resources and priorities. for the sheriff’s department, which he said were misplaced.

“I’m very grateful to the people of Windsor County who trusted me for this position, and I’m going to do everything I can to make them proud of me,” Palmer said Wednesday.

Chamberlain, in a statement admitting his loss, nevertheless called the result “a victory for me personally”.

“I can slow down and spend time with my family – my wife, my daughter and my grandson,” he said. “I look forward to a change in my daily focus.”

And in what looked like a dig at his successor, Chamberlain said he hoped ‘things will go well for those MPs who will remain in the department’.

(Critics argue that Chamberlain ran the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department as if it were a family business, employing both his wife and daughter in administrative jobs at the department’s headquarters in Woodstock.)

Palmer, who defeated Windsor County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Battista in the August primary, said his immediate priorities for taking office early next year will be getting body cameras for officers and launching a public website for the department and social media presence, two of the things Chamberlain avoided.

Longer term, Palmer – who ran on the slogan “arrest the police for profit” – reaffirmed his campaign message that he wants to move the sheriff’s department away from its usual practice of generating revenue by issuing tickets. for speeding and instead contract with cities to provide them with essential policing services that they cannot afford on their own.

Historically, Vermont Sheriff’s Departments have played a limited role in state law enforcement by enforcing speeding laws on behalf of cities, transporting inmates to court appointments, and ensuring the courthouse security.

But Palmer wants sheriffs to get more involved in fighting crime.

“I want to broaden the scope of the policing contract to better reflect the view I’m hearing that people want better law enforcement in rural communities,” Palmer said.

Meanwhile, Contois in Orange County has a more traditional view of the sheriff’s department. but it emphasizes shifting resources and priorities within the ministry to have a more visible presence in the community.

He criticized the need for a “special investigative unit” that Bohnyak created to investigate child sex abuse, saying there are not enough sex crimes in Orange County to warrant his full-time staff costs.

Bohnyak, 65, is president of the National Sheriffs Association, has served as Orange County sheriff for 15 years and has not faced a challenger since first being elected in 2006. But the potential threat posed by Contois’ challenge was announced during the August primary when Contois received 2,478 votes as a Democrat, more than double the 1,155 votes Bohnyak received as a Republican, according to records from the Secretary of State’s office. from Vermont.

Given the low 102 votes by which Bohnyak lost, it’s unclear whether he will seek a recount. In order to request a recount, the candidate must file a petition with the County Superior Court within seven calendar days of the election.

Neither Contois nor Bohnyak responded to messages seeking comment on Wednesday.

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