SOMERVILLE, NJ - History was made in the historic Somerset County Courthouse Fridayas Shanel Robinson was sworn in as the first-ever African-American female Freeholder Director at the annual Somerset County Reorganization meeting.

The day was also notable as the balance of power on the freeholder board shifted for the first time in 56 years, with Democrat Melonie Marano sworn to office, creating a 3-2 Democratic majority on the board. She defeated Republican Pat Walsh in November, who had served 12 years on the board.

Marano, Robinson and fellow Democrat Sara Sooy, who became the Deputy Freeholder director following a vote by her colleagues, represent the new Democrat majority, which was celebrated by a long guest list of local, county, state and federal Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, who returned to the courthouse for the third time in three years to swear in the new Democrats to office.

Sign Up for Hillsborough Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Last year, Murphy swore in Robinson and Sooy to the board, and in 2018, the governor swore in Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter.

Republican Freeholders Brian Levine and Brian Gallagher voted with their Democratic colleagues Friday to approve Robinson and Sooy as the ranking members of the board.

Democrat Darrin Russo, a former Franklin Township police lieutenant, was sworn in as Somerset County Sheriff by Murphy. He takes over from Republican Frank Provenzano, who chose not to seek reelection in November after serving 18 years.

In addition to Peg Schaefer, Somerset County Democratic chair, other prominent Democrats and union leaders in attendance at the annual Reorganization meeting were:

  • US Representative Bonnie Watson-Coleman (NJ12)
  • US Representative Tom Malinowski (NJ7)
  • NJ State Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg
  • NJ State Senator Bob Smith (LD17)
  • NJ State Senator Nicholas P. Scutari (LD22)
  • NJ Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (LD17
  • NJ Assemblyman Roy Freiman (LD16)
  • NJ Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (LD16)
  • Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter
  • NJ Democratic Party Chair John Currie
  • Essex Democratic Committee Chair Leroy Jones
  • NJ State PBA President Pat Colligan
  • State Troopers Fraternal Association President Wayne Blanchard
  • Middlesex-Somerset County Central Labor Council President Wayne Martiak

Robinson's remarks follow:

Welcome to everyone gathered here today, culminating the historic nature of today’s reorganization meeting. 
 It has been 56 years since there has been a change in the partisan control of Somerset County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders.  Since the last Democratic majority, a lot has changed. Indulge me for a moment as I share with you a lens view of 2020 hindsight, reflection and review, and the 2020 Vision:
 
• The county population has more than doubled, from 144,000 to 330,000. • The non-white population has grown 1,000%, from 3.2% in 1960 to 32%. • 70% of our county residents were born since the last time Democrats held the majority on this board.
 The fact that our board includes an African American woman and a Latina—speaks volumes and is a testament to that change. In keeping up with that change we bring fresh eyes to our county government, the priorities we establish, and how we serve the people of our county.
 Going forward, our number-one mission is to PUT PEOPLE FIRST. It’s our obligation as leaders to make sure we’re addressing the needs of every community in Somerset County.
 We’re proud of the launch of our Diversity Festival in 2019, to send a clear message that we value everyone represented in our county.
 We’re also proud that we’ve begun to make our county more open and transparent, with the new times and live streaming of our Freeholder meetings.
 In the coming year, we’re going to go much farther in putting PEOPLE FIRST.  
 WE’RE GOING TO … • Open-up the process of appointments to our volunteer boards and commissions, electronically, via a web portal to make sure everyone feels included.          WE’RE ALSO GOING TO… • Take a fresh look at how we deliver human services to needy populations.   • Re-energize our community college and vocational education programs. • Partner with the state to improve access to public transit. • Promote sustainability to protect the environment and encourage SMART growth. • Although we are starting 2020 with a $1.2M deficit, we will not waver or be dismayed, by making sure the appropriations in the budget are focused on expanding
opportunities for the most people, maintaining our excellent bond rating while continuing to be efficient. 
 
“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.” — Jimmy Carter
 I want to emphasize our “PEOPLE FIRST” mission also applies to the outstanding men and women who work for Somerset County.  After a year of service on this board, I know how fortunate we are to have the team that’s in place. While our priorities will change our commitment to the people of Somerset County will not.

 “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”— Ronald Reagan
 Politics may be broken nationally, but not here in Somerset County.  I want to thank my Republican colleagues, Pat Walsh for her years of service to the county and her kindness towards me, and to Brian Gallagher and Brian Levine, for their graciousness and commitment to the work on the road that lies ahead; I extend my hand to our working together in 2020.  Working together, across party lines, is the most effective way we can help heal our politics, from the ground up.

"Finally, while I did not set out to be the first African American Somerset County Freeholder or the first African American Freeholder Director in Somerset County I am honored, and to me this is ‘heart’ work NOT ‘hard’ work. However, I would like to be most remembered for being a Servant Leader that worked for the people and with the people.

"As a Servant Leader to much is given much is required. I have been given the awesome responsibility of leading the county as the director and I am required to not only take an oath but to live by and uphold the oath along with my Air Force core values— integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all I do."