GUILFORD—Selectboard Chair Sheila Morse recently told The Commons, “we’re looking for a constable — a particularly tough challenge these days with all the requirements — and a dog officer.”
Guilford isn’t alone. In the last few years, Selectboards in a number of towns in southeast Windham County have struggled to find and keep an animal control officer.
Some have contemplated sharing an officer with neighboring towns, but so far the idea has gained little traction.
In other parts of the state, few will step forward to sign on as constable.
According to the Guilford town website, “The constable is the town’s local law enforcement officer. As authorized, the constable has the powers of search, seizure and arrest within the town. The constable may serve civil and criminal process, may destroy animals when required by law, may kill injured deer in accordance with the law, may assist the health officer in the exercise of his or her duties, may serve as district court officer, may remove disorderly people from town meeting. The Constable reports directly to the Selectboard.”
The dog officer is responsible for enforcing the town’s dog ordinances, ranging from licensing issues to dogs running free to rabies.
The two jobs have some similarities — and provide municipalities with shared challenges of finding people willing to step in. They are part-time, with calls that can come in the dead of night.
Until the end of August, Jacob Boyd served as both the town’s constable and dog officer.
“He did a great job, and we got amazing feedback” from residents about Boyd’s performance, “but he had to leave for personal reasons — positive ones,” Town Administrator Peder Rude said.
He noted Boyd had very few animal-complaint calls.
And “he never had to step in as constable, which I hope speaks something positive about Guilford,” said Rude.
A difficult requirement for training
The responsibilities are great, especially in towns, like Guilford, without its own municipal police force. Guilford contracts with the Vermont State Police for law-enforcement, but not on a full-time basis.
According to state statute, typically the only difference between constables with full law-enforcement authority and other officers — municipal, county sheriffs’ deputies, and state troopers — is that a constable serves only within the town’s boundaries.
In mid-2012, The Associated Press reported that the “future of constables in Vermont is uncertain,” citing training and certification as the two main challenges.
The following year, the Vermont Constables’ Association issued a document calling on the Legislature to correct these problems. One suggestion was to extend the certification period from 12 months to 18.
This would make it easier for prospective constables to complete the Police Academy training program during their vacations from their paid jobs so they don’t experience a loss in income.
The Legislature has not corrected these problems, but it still requires towns to appoint a constable.
A historical vestige?
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), in its “Handbook for Vermont Town Officers,” offers a brief history of constabulary tradition.
The term comes from medieval England, when constables served in a knight’s household. When English colonists came to America, they brought this tradition, along with the “shire reeve,” or sheriff.
As early as 1777, constables were mentioned in the first Constitution of the Republic of Vermont, but in the document’s amendment in 1974, “references to them were expunged,” says the Handbook, “and the office itself has suffered corresponding loss of both power and prestige.”
While the Legislature does not mandate towns maintain an animal control officer, it does require a designated person to respond to complaints about wayward pets, especially dogs, wolf-hybrids, and cats.
The potential for conflict, and damage, is rife in a rural state with strong agrarian traditions and the highest percentage of pet owners in the nation (70.8 percent), according to a 2012 study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
When kitty gets into the neighbor’s chicken coop, or Fido attacks your cow, who ya gonna call?
A challenging position
According to Rude, both positions in Guilford are on-call, which means “someone [can] call you at 3 in the morning saying, ‘My neighbor’s dog is barking,’” and the animal control officer must respond.
And, if an injured deer is reported at 4 a.m., according to statute, the constable is responsible for killing the animal.
Although Guilford pays its animal-control officer and constable a stipend, it’s far from steady, gainful employment, so most people have to maintain a full-time job.
This makes it a challenge for would-be constables to complete their training.
In 2009, the Legislature changed the laws governing constables, including those, like Guilford’s, who serve only part-time.
For them to exercise law-enforcement powers, part-time constables must satisfactorily complete a minimum of 58 hours of classroom instruction [and] an additional 120 hours of training during a 12-month period, and they can’t “exercise their law enforcement powers on a piecemeal basis” before their training is complete, according to Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council rules.
“Most people don’t have the option of taking three weeks off to attend this training,” said Rude. While he fully agrees the training is important, “it does complicate the situation.”
Regardless, the town is still required to fill the position.
Is the town penalized for its inability to do so? Statute doesn’t specify, and since Guilford contracts with the Vermont State Police on a part-time basis for its law-enforcement needs, “technically, those calls go to them,” said Rude.
But, amid other responsibilities, how quickly will the Vermont State Police send over a trooper for a vehicle identification number verification, to kill an injured deer, or assist the town’s health officer? Such tasks are specifically assigned to a town constable.
For animal control, Guilford does get some assistance from staff with the Windham County Humane Society.
But that contract is “primarily for holding animals without tags that are found on other people’s property,” said Rude, and the humane society does not perform animal-control-officer duties.
In the absence of an animal-control officer, who does?
“Our town dog ordinance doesn’t specify,” said Rude.
Currently, when residents have a complaint, they can use an online form from the town’s website. Rude fields those.
Since Boyd resigned, Rude has started to respond to a few complaints, “but before I even had a chance to call the owner of the accused dog, I got an email saying it worked out.”
Further strategies to fill the role
So, how does a town find a constable and animal control officer?
“That’s what the Selectboard is struggling with now,” said Rude.
The town has tried the typical methods: putting one ad on the town’s website and another in the newspapers, with no response.
Selectboard Chair Sheila Morse “wants it to be clear,” said Rude, that the two positions are “open to any gender.”
The other requirement for both jobs is the applicant must be 18 years or older.
Do they have to live in Guilford? “Sheila Morse and I have started discussing that,” said Rude.
“This is my opinion, and not necessarily the Selectboard’s, but personally, I think the constable position is archaic and is tied to 18th- and 19th-century New England,” said Rude.
“Now, towns either have their own police force or they contract with the sheriff or the state police,” he said, and noted, “state statute deems we have to have a constable, so it is what it is.”
“We’re required to fill both positions,” said Rude.
“What does the town do if we can’t find someone who’s willing and able to do so?” he asked. “There’s no clear answer to that.”