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Clark, in absentia, faces Manch in sheriff’s race

BRATTLEBORO—It might seem awkward to run against a candidate who cannot campaign for himself, but William Manch, a Republican from Vernon, is up for the challenge.

Manch is challening incumbent Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark of Westminster, now serving on active duty with the Vermont Army National Guard as a captain and company commander in Afghanistan.

Federal rules prevent active duty military officers from campaigning for elective office. Clark’s wife Bonnie has had to act as his surrogate during his re-election campaign.

In a letter to supporters she sent out before the Aug. 24 primary, Bonnie Clark wrote that while employees in other fields “are guaranteed their jobs back when they return from war,” elected officials “are not guaranteed the same comfort, especially if they are away during an election year.”

Manch said he is friendly with the Clarks and that “they’re great people. I just have a difference of opinion about how the department should be run.”

He has been a state liquor control officer for Windham County since 2002. Prior to that, he served with the Windham County Sheriff’s Department from 1992 to 2002, leaving with the rank of sergeant. He also served briefly with the Vernon Police.

Manch admits that Clark, elected in 2006, has done a good job in stabilizing the Sheriff’s Department after the tumultuous term of Sheila Prue in the early 2000s. But Manch believes the department is “stalled” and can do much more.

“The budget for the Sheriff’s Department each year is essentially zero,” said Manch. “The funding all comes from contracts the department has with local communities and the various traffic details that the deputies work. The department needs to get more contracts and do more community outreach.”

One way to do so, Manch said, is to return the department to a 24-hour-a-day operation with a round-the-clock dispatcher and deputies on call.

Manch also wants to see the department do more youth outreach by reviving the Explorer program for older teens interested in law enforcement careers and creating a local “police athletic league” for area youngsters.

In that August letter, Bonnie Clark touted some of her husband’s accomplishments.

“Keith ran for Sheriff when the Windham County Sheriff’s Department was at an all time low, confident that he could rise to the challenge of putting it on a new footing,” she wrote. “He made staff changes, worked out all the legal messes he found, and began regaining the trust of Windham County leaders and residents alike. As Sheriff, [he] has brought the department into the 21st century. Staff training is up to date, the offices in Newfane have been remodeled and modernized and the budget is healthily back in the black.”

She also said that her husband hasn’t rested on his laurels and that his goal is “to make the Windham County Sheriff’s Department the primary law enforcement agency in towns that do not have a police department of their own.”

She used Putney as an example.

“The department has a contract with Putney to have a specific deputy dedicated to work there for 40 hours a week,” she wrote. “This provides the town a personal relationship with an individual officer, while at the same time enhancing its security and protection. It is Keith’s hope to establish more such relationships with other towns across the county.”

Clark, who is running as a Democrat, has 18 years of law enforcement experience, and served as police chief in Bellows Falls before he was elected to his first term as sheriff in 2006.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #72 (Wednesday, October 20, 2010).

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