SOMERVILLE, NJ -- Alongside the perennial issues of county taxes and shared services, candidates for freeholder and sheriff debated local responses to problems shared by much of the state and nation last night at Somerville High School.

When allowed to question one another, freeholder candidates -- incumbent Republican Patricia Walsh and Democratic challenger Melonie Marano -- tried to associate each other with the national and statewide positions of their parties.

When asked by Marano, who is a former mayor of Green Brook Township, if Walsh would support President Donald J. Trump in the 2020 election, she said she would rather focus on Somerset County’s issue.

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“This debate is about Somerset County and I think that’s where it should stay,” Walsh said. ”I can’t do anything about what happens in Washington, I don’t have that power. I have no idea yet whether I will support Donald Trump in 2020.”

For her part, Walsh spent much of the debate highlighting her 12 years of experience as a freeholder but still took the opportunity to question Marano’s support of Gov. Phil Murphy’s sanctuary state policies and desire for “New Jersey to be the California of the East.”

“I would love to be the California of the East because the last I checked their economy was booming,” Marano responded. “I would love to have that high-tech industry all in New Jersey again. We follow the laws in this county … and I respect the people living here, Pat, and I respect the jobs they do and I respect the work they do and I honor them as human beings.”

Walsh’s plan for keeping county taxes down, which she said are one of the lowest in the state, involves sharing services with other counties and constant evaluation of county operations. She pointed to the agreement to house Hunterdon County’s inmates in the Somerset County Jail as “a huge influx of cash into our Somerset County budget.”

Marano took a different approach to ease the tax burden on residents.

“Our businesses are leaving and new businesses aren’t coming here,” she said. “Taxes have to come from somewhere and they either come from businesses or they come from residents. When we don’t have the money coming in from businesses the residents are left picking up the tab.”

Marano, who serves as Somerset County Tax Board commissioner and a business development executive with Universal Vending Management, positioned her professional experience as something that separates her from Walsh’s four consecutive terms as a freeholder.

November won’t be the first time the two Green Brook-based candidates vie for the freeholder position. In 2007, Walsh edged out Marano for the seat, winning by a margin of 51.5 percent to 49.5 percent. However, at that time the county was seen as a Republican stronghold, with GOP candidates dominating countywide elections until 2017 when Brett Radi was elected county clerk. With last year’s election of Shanel Robinson and Sara Sooy, Democrats gained a foothold on the freeholder board. If Marano defeats Walsh, Democrats would gain a 3-2 majority in the county government for the first time since 1964.

Democrats are also looking to shake up the historically Republican-held position of county sheriff by electing Somerset resident and retired Franklin Township police lieutenant Darrin Russo. Russo, ran unsuccessfully against Somerset County Sheriff, Frank Provenzano three years ago, losing narrowly by 600 votes.

Provenzano is not seeking reelection, North Plainfield Chief of Police William Parenti will take his spot on the Republican ticket.

Russo recently caught flak for being identified in a report by NJ.com on abuse of union leave by Franklin Township cops. Between January 2016 and his retirement in June of that year, Russo logged 273 hours of union time. During that time, Russo said he was the supervisor’s union president, which represents command staff, and his use of time was allowed by the contract between the union and the township.

“I had legitimate time that was in the contract,” he said. “What I did with that time was community policing. Our department was understaffed, our chief could not do the community policing, so the union guys said let us take over community policing,”

Parenti also captured headlines in a New Jersey 101.5 article last year for how the public was notified after his home was burglarized.

According to published reports, Parenti delayed informing the public that his uniform and firearm had been stolen during the burglary. 

Parenti, who lives in Watchung and spent the last 14 years as chief of police in North Plainfield, disagrees with the Murphy administration’s directive on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds. State Attorney General Gerber Grewal issued a directive in 2018 that prohibits jails from detaining an individual on a civil immigration detainer past when they would normally be released.

“I think we should hold them, maybe not indefinitely, but there should be a period of time because as we know government takes time,” he said. “We should be allowed to hold those individuals until ICE can pick them up. I also believe we should be able to assist another brother agency should they be in need.”

Russo said if elected he will always honor a warrant brought to him by another agency as long as a judge signs it. Currently, federal immigration officers, not judges, issue ICE detainers.

“If another agency is going to come to our department or any department with a warrant signed by a judge the warrant will be issued,” Russo said. “I will not use resources to go out to a community and take a father that’s working because he doesn’t have proper documentation.”

Elections for freeholder and sheriff will be held on Nov. 5.

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