The two contenders for Somerset County Sheriff debated the role of cooperating with federal immigration authorities and gave their approaches for battling the opioid crisis at the only Somerset County candidates forum held this election season.
Republican William Parenti and Democrat Darrin Russo appeared on the same stage at the League of Women Voters of Greater New Brunswick’s forum at Somerville High School in September. The two are vying to replace Sheriff Frank J. Provenzano, a Republican who is retiring in December after 18 years.
During the 51-minute-forum, both men waded into the larger immigration debate facing the country, particularly as it relates to the work of the sheriff’s department when dealing with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Among its duties, the sheriff runs the county jail.
William Parenti (R), candidate for Somerset County Sheriff
Lives in Watchung
Chief of the North Plainfield Police Department
ICE makes requests to local and county agencies to hold illegal immigrants, although such detainers are not the same as warrants signed by judges.
State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, a critic of Trump administration policies on immigration, last year issued to all law enforcement agencies in New Jersey a directive curtailing their cooperation with ICE.
When questioned, Russo said: “I would not use resources to go out to a community and take a father that’s working, because he doesn’t have the proper documentation. I don’t think it’s worth it. Everyone talks about ICE coming in. They’re out there doing a job to protect and serve and clean up the communities. They come in with a warrant, I’ve said it before, signed by a judge, the warrant is honored.”
Darrin Russo (D), candidate for Somerset County Sheriff
Lives in Somerset
Retired, lieutenant, Franklin Township police
Parenti said: “We should be allowed to hold those individuals until, in fact, ICE can go down and pick them up on a detainer. So I do oppose that portion of the directive. And I also believe we should be able to assist another brother agency should they be in need. I would never have my officers not support another agency out there, especially if their lives were in jeopardy.”
In dealing with the opioid epidemic, Parenti said he favored providing treatment and education to jail inmates.
“Most jails let people go cold turkey,” he said. “But if they leave the jail and return to their previous levels of drug use, their tolerance is greatly reduced.”
He said he would create a re-entry program that would include counselors to meet with former inmates. Also, he favored providing inmates with medication, upon their release, that prevents the effects of opioids and continuing to offer the medication on a monthly basis.
“If we get them clean,” he said, “they become productive in society again, they reconnect with loved ones and they’re not returning to prison.”
A few days before the debate, he announced a partnership with the sheriff’s department on a re-entry program to combat the opioid problem, although Russo pressed him on why did it take so long to start something.
Earlier in the forum, Russo said the sheriff’s department is “meeting bare minimum right now with some good programs, but really only on paper.” He sought to make the case for a more involved sheriff’s department in the county’s 21 towns.
For instance, Russo said he favored having the sheriff’s department aid local police forces with prisoner transports, which would “keep your officers in your towns.” He also supported creating task forces to combat gangs, drugs, and hate crimes, and having a re-entry program for jail inmates.
“It’s time to get more involved in the community, to protect the people, everybody, in the community,” Russo said.
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Parenti said he, too, supported having the sheriff’s department provide prisoner transports.
In his opening remarks, Parenti touched on the deep roots law enforcement has in his family starting with his grandfather and how he has developed the leadership skills to become the next sheriff.
Parenti, the president of the Somerset County Association of Chiefs of Police, has spent 37 years in law enforcement, including 15 of them as the North Plainfield police chief.
“As the current chief of police of one of the larger departments, I have the experience of administrating, negotiating, and managing a budget and ensuring that everything is done to keep us safe while taking care of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I have worked with unions to take care of our police officers while keeping the cost to the taxpayers down. This puts me in a position to hit the ground running, ready to serve, day one as your sheriff.”
Russo also has a background in law enforcement. He spent 31 years in the Franklin Township Police Department, retiring about three years ago, he said.
In that time, he was assigned to the detective bureau, confronted drug and gang crimes and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant. He said he had made the police department “a part of the community” and saw crime drop by 45 percent.
Touting his familiarity with Somerset, he said he had worked in other communities in the county and with officers from those police departments.
This Russo’s second race for sheriff. He challenged Provenzano three years ago, in a close contest that the Democrat lost.
During the debate, Parenti challenged Russo by referencing news stories of what he said was abuse, within the Franklin Police Department, of union time meant for union-related business. During the campaign, he has called on Russo to pay back 273 hours, a request he repeated at the debate.
“I ask you, how far back does the abuse of union time go, how many hours can we assume that you took costing the hardworking taxpayers money that were forced to live within their means and do you have any intention of doing the right thing by taxpayers and paying this time back?”
But Russo held up a September 4 letter by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, which probed the matter, that said there were no criminal or administrative policy wrong doing by the officers. He said the union time was approved by then Chief Larry Roberts, now an adviser to Parenti’s campaign.
“And what we did with that time … is community policing, because our department was understaffed,” Russo said. “I had the legitimate time that was in the contract, and what it was was community policing.” ■