Gulley challenging Bennington sheriff in Democratic primary

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BENNINGTON — If elected the next Bennington County sheriff, James Gulley Jr. says his plan for the department includes expanding efforts to combat drug-related criminal activity — without an increase in taxes.

In part to meet the later goal, Gulley said he'd "roll back" into the budget a 5 percent administrative fee that is designated for the sheriff in contracts for services the department provides.

Gulley, 39, a veteran police officer, law enforcement instructor and lifelong Bennington resident, is challenging incumbent Sheriff Chad Schmidt in the Aug. 14 Democratic Primary. There are no Republicans or independent candidates in the race for a four-year term.

"I want to say that my goal is not to change or alter any of the current operations going on in the sheriff's department," Gulley said during an interview. "I am just adding a unique vision to the agency."

That plan calls for the creation of two specially trained teams within the department, he said, one working with officers from other agencies on drug investigations and a second doing interdiction work to identify and interrupt the flow of opioids or other drugs into the area.

"My skills are very unique," Gulley said of his qualifications to oversee such operations. "I'm experienced in leadership when it comes to running an organization. I received my master's in public administration. I have a unique skill or education base when it comes to narcotics investigations — working with both state and federal agencies, and the state and federal courts as well."

Gulley served with the Bennington Police Department for 14 years before leaving to take a position teaching law enforcement courses with the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center.

"I was offered an outstanding position at the CDC, which allowed my career to grow," he said.

Gulley also has been working simultaneously with the Manchester Police Department, focusing on drug investigations around the county with the Vermont State Police Southern Vermont Drug Task Force, which also includes local police officers and personnel from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He received a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University in 2016 and earlier received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Castleton University.

The candidate also cited his experience as a police corporal with the Bennington force, including serving in a mid-level management post on the department's night shift for seven years, as well as participation in drug investigations.

Gulley also served as the appointed constable in Bennington and for two terms in the elective post of county high bailiff.

He said he would leave the Manchester department if elected sheriff and would continue teaching at the CDC through the remainder of his contract.

Drugs a top issue

Almost all of the people who signed his nomination petition said addressing drug issues should be a top priority, Gulley said.

His response is to propose two new teams within the department to deal with drug-related crime, and to help institute a comprehensive pre-trial evaluation process for those facing charges — aiming to divert into treatment and support programs those who might benefit from a chance to turn their lives around. He said he would promote access to services for low-level offenders needing recovery and treatment or mental health programs.

A good example of a comprehensive effort, he said, is the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program used in Albany, N.Y., and other departments, which he said brings together with law enforcement a collaborative of organizations to provide assistance and support prior to a criminal booking.

In addition, he said his proposed interdiction team would work to uncover drug trafficking operations, and a drug investigations unit would work with the drug task force. Both teams would be highly trained, Gulley said, and he would have a "short-term goal of getting everybody up to par, getting everything in place" within his first year in office.

By the end of the fourth year, he would expect significant results, along with an action plan to get people into treatment and recovery services and show the community how the department is working to help stem the flow of opioids into the area.

This effort would be partly funded through the drug trafficker asset forfeiture program the federal government oversees, in which the local agency would keep 80 percent of the amount seized, Gulley said. And he would seek grants, employ fund-raising efforts, and put the 5 percent contract administrative fee that comes to the sheriff toward the new programming.

The aim would be "to make this a zero dollar contribution from the tax base, which is my overall goal, and it is clearly possible," Gulley said.

Noting the $81,000 salary designated by law for a county sheriff, he said he sees no need to accept any of the additional administrative fee money allowed for the position.

"Simply, this is a quality of life campaign," he said. "What I am proposing, and what I am running for, is not for power, or title or money; it's to save lives."

Asked to respond to Gulley's proposal for the 5 percent fee, Schmidt said: "The 5 percent allowable under law is always a hot topic at election time The state pays me a salary to perform two major functions as sheriff that I am mandated to do. One is to serve civil process and the other is to coordinate transportation of prisoners between the court and the jails."

He added, "A sheriff could decide that the only functions the department will be involved with are those two functions. Should the sheriff wish to take on more responsibilities and grow the operation, he or she is permitted to take up to 5 percent of the gross proceeds of a contract for administrative costs."

In practice, he said, the amount is under 2 percent, depending on the department's financial status for that year.

Gulley also contended that he would foster more of an open management style in leading the department.

"I would consider myself more receptive to feedback," he said. "I have an open door policy, whereas the current [sheriff] does not."

He added, "You have to be able to receive feedback, and you have to measure what it is that you are actually doing. The old trademark goes that if it can be measured, it can be managed. So what I see a lot of currently is a lot of intuition-based, gut feeling."

Gulley said he's been told by some administrators of entities receiving services from the department that they are "not quite fulfilled with 100 percent of the services being rendered."

That also includes some "lay people within those communities," he said. "They're looking for something more, and what that is, is handling of the current [drug] crisis or epidemic in our communities."

Named in lawsuit

Gulley said he might like to discuss a lawsuit filed against him, other officers and the town of Bennington in U.S. District Court by a man arrested in 2015, but he "can't officially discuss the intricacies of that," because of the pending suit.

"But I am not afraid to air out the fact that I have always acted at the highest esteem, using the strongest sense of all of my core values," he said. "I have acted with integrity, professionalism, and I have always been honest with people, and I have treated people with respect."

In the suit, a Pownal man claims he was injured and his civil rights violated while he was being held after an arrest for allegedly driving while under the influence of drugs. The defendants have denied the allegations.

More information about the candidate is available at his website, http://www.gulleyforsheriff.com

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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