SOMERVILLE – They clashed a handful of blocks north of the train yards, where the freights clank all night, these two lawmen looking to lead the Somerset County Sheriff’s office in the wake of Republican Sheriff Frank Provenzano’s pending retirement.
Former Franklin Twp. cop Darrin Russo, a Democrat, nearly beat Provenzano three years ago. His allies would probably tell you their guy ran Provenzano out of town.
North Plainfield Police Chief William “Bill” Parenti wants to pick up where Provenzano left off, not radically departing from the sheriff’s game plan.
A key moment in the Monday evening debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and set in the auditorium of Somerville High School predictably came when each candidate had to ask the other a question. The forum to that point had mostly consisted of sedately mouthed maxims from notes in the possession of the two men propped on a stage above the crowd.
Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo sat with his allies, including Janet Linnus and Gaburo protege Sam Wainstein. Cathy Callahan, president of the Somerset Federation of Republican Women, and this year’s recipient of the Millicent Fenwick Award, was in the room. So was her counterpart, Margaret Weinberger, president of the Somerset County Federation of Democratic Women. Joel Shain, former mayor of Orange and the grand old man of the Somerset Democratic Party, occupied a prominent perch front and center. Democratic Party operative Joe DeMarco roamed. Incumbent Republican Freeholder Pat Walsh and her rival, former Green Brook Mayor Melonie Marano, had cleared the stage 20 minutes earlier.
Now a moment in the sheriff’s contest was at hand.
Russo struck first at the prompting of the League of Women voters moderator.
“You were president of the chief’s association for 13 years, and you recently partnered with a sheriff who was there for around for 18 years, with seven weeks left in the election, [to put together a county policy to combat opioid addiction],” said Russo. “What would you say to someone who could have benefited from your partnership? What do you say to them, ‘that we took so long to come out with this?’ What would you say to the parents of an individual who could have have benefited [from a real policy]?”
Parenti called it a good question.
It’s obvious he is familiar with fielding questions from constituents and/or council people.
“I wasn’t running for sheriff,” the local chief answered. “Opioids has been my top priority but i didn’t want to wait until I was elected. I’m able to meet with all the agencies, and we are hoping to receive $300K so these people can receive the medications they need, so we can get these people clean. They can be productive and reconnect with their loved ones.”
Now it was Parenti’s turn to grill Russo, more of a street guy going back to his days as a beat cop.
“You are one of several officers who have used union paid time off, four days per month, and as a result, you [and the other officers] cost the taxpayers in total $470K since 2016,” said the Republican, hearkening to his campaign’s summer release.
An audible gasp of wow formed on someone’s lips.
“We have learned you were formally reprimanded for union related activities,” Parenti continued. “How far back does the abuse of union time go, costing the hardworking taxpayers money? Do you have any intention of doing the right thing of paying this money back?”
Russo cited a letter from the prosecutor’s office that there was no criminal conduct or policy violations committed.
The time he took off with pay in accord with the Franklin Twp. PBA.
“Approved by our chief,” Russo said. “Maybe it’s true in your town but not in Franklin Twp. Nothing was done wrong.
“It was up to the chief to keep better union records,” The Democrat added.
Claps ensued from his side of the room.
The candidate said his paid time-off included fund-raisingg for a foodbank in Somerset and participating in a school backpack distribution drive.