Union says Vermont slow to improve workplace safety
MONTPELIER >> A year after a Vermont social worker was shot and killed outside a state office building, the state says it's making security enhancements to buildings, but the employees' union says Vermont hasn't moved quickly enough to protect workers from violence.
Police said Lara Sobel was shot as she was leaving work in Barre on Aug. 7, 2015 by a woman upset over losing custody of her 9-year-old daughter. Jody Herring has pleaded not guilty to killing Sobel and three of her own relatives. She is in jail awaiting trial.
On Wednesday, police were looking for Herring's 21-year-old daughter who they said was missing after being released from prison last week. State officials planned to increase security at some offices as a precaution.
Since the shootings last year, the state has assessed 14 major office facilities housing Agency of Human Services staff and then developed security priorities, Administration Secretary Justin Johnson said Monday.
"I have not been in a big rush to advertise all the things we've been doing because I don't think laying out all of the security flaws and where we might have changed things ... is in the best interest of security," he said.
Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen notified staff last month that the state will begin adding safety glass reception windows, panic buttons, lock down buttons and security cameras to some buildings this fiscal year. The upgrades are funded by one-time funding allocated through the Legislature.
The capital bill appropriated $1 million for security enhancements. Another $500,000 was allocated in the operating budget but only $250,000 of that is targeted to additional security, said Dawn O'Toole, the agency's chief operations officer. The state hopes to add security staff to four more buildings that don't have them and it expects to seek more funding next year for more upgrades and personnel, she said.
But the Vermont State Employees' Association president is demanding that the state do more, immediately.
"Taking a full year to address a serious safety crisis is not acceptable," said association president Dave Bellini in a letter to the administration.
The union's priorities are:
— Having all state parking lots secured and monitored, with restricted entry.
— Having trained law enforcement officers regularly present in state office buildings.
— Creating an independent "safety czar" to coordinate safety efforts and have the authority to make recommendations and seek funding for security improvements from the Legislature and administration.
Johnson said the state is considering adding security personnel to some buildings, updating and improving training for the Buildings and General Services department security force and has law enforcement officers in some facilities, Johnson said.
It was also in the process of hiring a new head of security at the Department of Buildings and General Services. That person is to have an expanded role of overseeing security training and preparation and assessment across state government facilities, Johnson said.
"I think obviously there's always more you can do and there's always things to keep an eye on. And we will continue to do that," he said. "It's not a one-off thing. It's an ongoing sort of approach to how you ensure that people remain safe and we'll continue to work on that."
Herring's daughter, Desiree Herring, was incarcerated earlier this year for multiple convictions, the Barre police chief said. She was released July 28, he said, and placed at a residence in the city under terms of her prison furlough.
But police were unable to find her on Tuesday and were still searching for her Wednesday.
Officials warned state workers Wednesday morning and said they'd increase security at the Barre offices as a precaution.
"My staff are feeling particularly sensitive at this time, as this is the anniversary of the murders," Cohen said. "We thought it was best to inform all of our staff, and we have also brought in additional security to the city center as well."
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