BRANDON — The Select Board has formally accused the Addison County sheriff of attempting to intimidate the town manager after he filed a public records request.
The board voted 5-0 Monday to release a statement that reads in part, “On July 19th the Brandon Select Board was notified by the Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton that our town manager, David Atherton, had made a public records request to his office. It appears that Sheriff Newton was trying to intimidate David Atherton from following through with his records request. The Brandon Select Board finds this action on the part of Sheriff Newton to be inappropriate and is filing a complaint with the Vermont Criminal Justice Council with their Act 56 Professional Regulation Intake Form.”
Select Board Chair Seth Hopkins said Atherton’s records request had nothing to do with the town until Newton sent the board an email asking it for a response.
“The board determined that we ought to respond to the sheriff’s actual request to the board for an official statement, and we made one,” he said. “That’s what we’re sending along to the sheriff as our official position, and involved with that is, the board believes the sheriff’s actions were unprofessional given how he responded to this Freedom of Information Act Request and escalated it to the board level.”
Select Board Member Tim Guiles said he accompanied Atherton to the Addison County Sheriff’s Office when he went to retrieve the records he had requested.
“I found that to be inappropriate at the time, and I offered to go up with Dave when he got the information … because at this point, the sheriff had drawn the Select Board in, and so I went up there and told the sheriff when he asked me about Dave’s request that I thought it was inappropriate to contact the board, and I felt it was trying to intimidate Dave in following through on his freedom of information request,” said Guiles.
Guiles isn’t expecting a specific outcome to stem from the complaint to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, but the board wants the issue on record.
“It’s fundamental to our democracy that we can get information from our public officials,” he said. Anybody who makes that difficult is not doing the right thing.”
Calls to Atherton Tuesday weren’t returned.
It’s not clear what sort of records Atherton requested, however, an email from Newton to Atherton, which was copied to members of the Select Board, sent on July 19 makes reference to a speeding complaint.
“Mr. Atherton,” Newton states in his email. “(It) was brought to my attention that you mentioned you were the Brandon Town Manager several time(s) on two different phone calls you made to our office looking for records of a speeding complaint. I am not sure what you being the town manager of Brandon has anything to do with the business you were calling about. If it had something to do with town business can you please explain to me how?”
The email was sent to Atherton’s town account. He responded the following day from the same account with the Select Board copied.
“I mentioned this during the conversations because we also have a Police Department in Brandon and I know that if someone called our Police Chief stating that they felt intimidated during a traffic stop, he would want to see the bodycam footage to determine what took place and to watch our officers behavior,” stated Atherton. “Also, when you denied my original request for the bodycam footage I reached out to our Chief to discuss how he handles public records requests and he was a bit surprised that you would not comply. So, my second phone call was to ask again and also relay that as a municipality we are required to provide this information.”
In the email to Newton, Atherton claims he was denied the records he was seeking twice, then filed a formal request. He claims he didn’t get a response within the three day time frame required by state law. He also asked why Newton had included the Select Board in his emails.
Newton responded that same day, stating that Atherton’s request wasn’t denied and that Atherton filed the official request before Newton could respond to the unofficial ones. He said he responded to the official request within the required three days.
“I believe you were trying to use your position as an intimidation factor to my business manager. I believe that action is very inappropriate and very unprofessional,” Newton wrote. “Please provide me with a sworn written statement as to how my deputy acted intimidating. My job is not a 9-5 job, so when I get around to dealing with your stuff should really not concern you. I included the board because I feel your actions of trying to use your position as a tool is very very very wrong, as I am sure the general public would agree.”
Newton stated in an email to the Herald on Tuesday that between July 9 and July 14, his department received phone calls from Atherton about a traffic stop.
“Atherton identified himself as the Town manager for the town of Brandon multiple times each time he called,” stated Newton. “Atherton tried to make non-specific complaints while on the phone claiming the radar unit was not working, to the deputy was intimidating. Atherton suggested he could just do a FOIA request, and the business manager suggested he do that.”
Newton said he received a public records request from Atherton on July 14 about a stop that occurred on July 9.
“This was my first notification about anything from Atherton. The request was sent to me with a Town of Brandon email account, and it was requested the records be sent back to the same town of Brandon email account,” Newton stated.
He claimed he sent Atherton an email on July 19 telling he could pick up the documents anytime. Later, he learned about Atherton having called the department.
“As the request and complaints were made using town of Brandon email accounts, and the complainant specifically identified himself as a town employee, I included copies to the select board members of all future emails,” stated Newton.
According to Newton, despite not receiving a formal complaint, an internal review was conducted into the behavior of the deputy involved and no problems were found.
“As to the specifics of the traffic ticket issued during the stop the Sheriff’s Department has no comment as it has yet to be adjudicated,” stated Newton. “Since the town of Brandon has taken the step of making a complaint to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, the Sheriff’s Department will have no further comment on this matter until the criminal justice training council finishes it’s review of the matter.”