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High bailiff sees potential in an old position

John Hagen, of Guilford, sees more in his job description than being prepared to arrest the sheriff

BRATTLEBORO—The ceremony was brief, the witnesses were few, but an oath of office still means business in Vermont.

And even though he describes the position as a “historical artifact,” John Hagen is primed to use his new position — as the high bailiff for Windham County — to shine a light on the work of government and law enforcement.

On Dec. 18, Windham County Assistant Judge Lamont Barnett officially swore in Hagen, of Guilford, who took two oaths: one to the state and the other to the office.

Hagen now has one primary duty: to serve writs the sheriff is incapable of serving.

According to Hagen, this duty has generally been interpreted to mean that the high bailiff arrests the sheriff if needed and succeeds to the office of the sheriff in the event of a vacancy.

Hagen called the position a “historical artifact” that is “unique to Vermont.” Still, he sees modern potential in the historic position.

“I intend to use the position as another connection between the Windham County Sheriff’s Department and the communities it serves,” he said. “I’d like to see it have that role, too, as a sounding board for the sheriff, and to be that resource for him.”

Hagen envisions the high bailiff’s position as a great training ground.

“There’s clearly not too much expected of the position, but I think it would be a good place to explore politics if you’re interested in getting into politics,” said Hagen, who plans to promote the position to people who might want to run for office.

Appointed until election

According to Hagen, the office of high bailiff remained empty after a series of staffing changes in the office of the Windham County Sheriff.

Sheriff Keith Clark retired in June after nearly 30 years. In July, Gov. Phil Scott appointed Capt. Mark Anderson — then the high bailiff — as successor.

Hagen said that after he reached out to the governor’s office in August to alert Scott to the vacancy, the governor decided to appoint a successor to serve until the November elections.

In this scenario, it is customary for such an appointee to belong to the same party as the predecessor. In this case, Anderson had run on the Democratic ticket.

In September, the Scott administration asked Hagen, who also serves as chair of the Windham County Democratic Committee, if he felt willing to serve.

Hagen, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, grew up in Burlington, then spent nearly three decades on active duty before returning to Vermont in 2014.

“I’m proud to have [the appointment], and I hope I serve the county well,” Hagen added.

“I was flattered when the governor reached out to me,” he said. “I’m kind of excited to go from having been active duty in the military and then two years later to be [appointed to fill] an elected position.”

A ‘curious position’

Hagen looks forward to working with Anderson. The new high bailiff “firmly believes” in his new boss’s “competency and his ethics” and doubts he’ll ever need to arrest the sheriff.

Historically, in New England, the structure of county government has been weak compared to other states, Hagen also noted. This structure also puts pressure on the sheriff’s office because it means the sheriff is accountable to the entire county.

“The high bailiff, also being a county-level position, I see it as a complimentary role,” he said. “Assuming there’s no need to arrest the Sheriff, there should be the ability to use that position as a resource to support county-wide law enforcement or to support community engagement with law enforcement.”

Hagen could not find any other state in the nation that has this “curious position” in its law-enforcement hierarchy. The only other place in the world that does so? The Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland about the size of the city of Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s one of those positions that might be a historical artifact,” he conceded.

“But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a role in bringing in more community members into how government is done or into how law enforcement engages with the community,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #542 (Wednesday, January 1, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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