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Years in the Making, Hampden Sheriff Candidates Rumble at Last…

UPDATED 2:58 PM: To add additional details of Monday’s night Hampden Sheriff debate.

From right, Michael Albano, Thomas Ashe, Jack Griffin, moderator Mike Dobbs, James Gill and Nick Cocchi. (WMassP&I)

From left, Michael Albano, Thomas Ashe, Jack Griffin, moderator Mike Dobbs, James Gill and Nick Cocchi. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—More than two years after the race for Hampden Sheriff began with the retirement announcement of Michael Ashe, the five candidates for the office appeared for their first debate Monday night. After months of jabs traded through the press and social media, the debate offered Hampden county voters their first opportunity to compare the candidates—four Democrats and one independent—side-by-side.

Towering over the debate as he has for much of the race was Ashe himself. Questions about transparency, what the sheriff’s office needs most and how the candidates would maintain its robust budget—a byproduct of Ashe’s extensive contacts locally and statewide—were a major feature of the evening.

“We want this to not just be a debate, but also a conversation among these men,” moderator Mike Dobbs, managing editor of The Reminder, said at the outset of the debate held at the studios of Focus Springfield, the city’s cable access channel. The media panel posing questions to the candidates included Paul Tuthill of Northeastern Public Radio, Elizabeth Roman of The Republican and Ryan Walsh of WWLP.

Since the incumbent announced his departure over two years, much of the campaign was conducted in subtle—and not—jabs sent through the press and social media, principally Democrats Michael Albano, a Governor’s Councilor, and Nicholas Cocchi, an assistant superintendent at the jail in Ludlow. Since that time, Jack Griffin, a substance abuse counselor with the Connecticut prison system and Springfield City Council Thomas Ashe joined the Democratic primary race. James Gill, another assistant superintendent in Ludlow, is running as an independent.

Michael Albano in 2012. (via Facebook)

Michael Albano (D) in 2012 (via Facebook)

Though there were moments of tension, particularly between Albano and Cocchi, all candidates’ voices came through, offering thoughts on where the office could improve without dinging the Sheriff too hard. Even Albano, who has lobbed bombs at the 42-year incumbent to cast shade on Cocchi, the sheriff’s preferred successor, eased off the denigration.

Ashe “has done a good job,” but, shifting gears, he added, “Elections are about the future not the past.”

Other candidates offered similar magnanimity. Opening his remarks at the top of the debate, Griffin, who has made substance abuse the hallmark of campaign, said all of the candidates were qualified, but declared, “I believe my skill sets and my determination and my heart could carry me in this position.”

Cocchi and Gill pitched their experience working at the jail with fifty years between them in corrections. Ashe, also a vet of sheriff’s departments—those in Hampden and Worcester counties—argued that his corrections and political experience had the right mix..

Councilor Thomas Ashe in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Thomas Ashe (D) in 2012. (WMassP&I)

The next sheriff needs, “the political background and political knowhow to go to Boston and fight for our fair share,” Ashe said. He assured he could maintain the results Beacon Hill demands and then make the pitch in the political language the legislature understands.

Broadly speaking, the candidates agreed the opioid epidemic was a huge issue for the sheriff’s office. By virtue of its role as a jail, thousands pass through the Hampden County House of Corrections, many needing substance abuse and mental health treatment. As many also come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, the jail may be the first place they ever receive treatment for these ailments.

Though agreeing more had to be done, Cocchi adamantly defended the sheriff’s office’s work up to and including guiding inmates and released individuals to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and founding opioid programs as early as 2001.

Nicholas Cocchi (D) (via Twitter/@nickforsheriff)

“Hampden County’s been doing a lot with regard to the addiction crisis,” Cocchi said.

The Western Massachusetts Alcohol Correctional Center, which treats inmates with other substance abuse problems as well, featured prominently Monday night. Ashe, Cocchi and Griffin all backed its new Mill Street location.

While Gill assured the center would be a good neighbor on Mill Street (he preferred it remain in Holyoke, its temporary home, he critiqued the siting process, “You don’t force your way on people.”

Albano, who had taken up opposition to the center slammed the location as a jail in the middle of a neighborhood.

“Correctional facilities are only sited by an act of the legislature,” Albano averred before saying the sheriff is using the Dover Amendment—a controversial state law that allows educational facilities to skirt local zoning—to site the treatment center in Springfield. The issue before the Springfield Zoning Board of Appeals

Jack Griffin (D) (via Facebook/Griffing campaign)

That drew a sharp rebuke from Griffin. “Treatment is education,” he said.

Albano reiterated his proposal to build a 200+ bed facility in Ludlow. Councilor Ashe had suggested Tuesday night the unused pods in the jail could be used instead—though he also supported the Mill Street site, too. Ashe also observed that with tight or shrinking budgets, Albano’s proposal was unrealistic.

“Utilizing the [pre-release center] open pod, 77 beds, is a reasonable measure to help address the crisis and a financially reasonable one as well,” Ashe wrote in an email.

Since its eviction from the South End due to the construction of MGM, the search for a new home has been fraught. Placement in the North End failed amid community opposition, but a new home, a former nursing home on Mill Street, has been selected.

James Gill (I) (via Facebook/Gill campaign)

Abutters are challenging Dover’s applicability before the ZBA. That appeal faces an uncertain fate, especially given abutters’—and Albano’s—contention that the center is a jail.

Both Albano and Ashe called for more audits of the Hampden Sheriff’s office. Ashe also said he would post sheriff’s outlays online for non-personnel spending, as Springfield does (salaries are already accessible through state records).

Cocchi replied that Auditor Suzanne Bump and state and federal agencies scrutinize sheriff’s office books often. “When we talk about transparency, we have it!” Cocchi stated.

Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office has reviewed the Hampden Sheriff’s office recently, though the October audit was mostly about transportation. (via wikipedia)

A spokesperson for Bump’s office confirmed it had released an 18-month review of the Hampden Sheriff’s department last October, although that audit was largely confined to inmate transportation.

Albano went beyond just a general call for transparency, citing a freedom of information request for inmates’ commissary accounts at the jail—ostensibly made via Attorney Shawn Allyn according to state records. Documents describe the family Sunshine account which Albano mentioned aspublic, but commissary accounts, which belong to inmates, not the state, are closed to public inspection.

Questions of morale at the jail also hovered over the debate, which hovered over a question about receiving campaign contributions from Hampden Sheriff employees.

“Everyone will be on a level playing field,” Ashe said, noting many contributors including sheriff empoyees are longtime supporters.

“This business is about people. It is about hiring good people. They do their jobs well, they get promoted,” Griffin stated.

Gill invoked his independence—both as an administrator and politicall—to assure an even-handed approach. His colleague Cocchi, in a lengthy answer, said as much.

“I have received quite a few contributions from the staff at the Hampden County Sheriff’s department,” Cocchi declared. “And I’m honored.” He said employees had a huge stake in the election, but assured state and local procedures guarded against nepotism.

That prompted Albano to retort, “I disagree to the point, yes those employees certainly have a stake in who the next sheriff is, but the bigger stake is for the people of Hampden County.”

Albano disavowed sheriff employees’ contributions and political endorsements. That position, political observers say, comes afterseveral  one-time Albano allies have backed others.

Beyond the cable access audience, the debate attracted decent viewership via Livestream, according to Focus Springfield sources.

With no statewide primary contests, the sheriff’s Democratic primary will likely be draw in Hampden County. Republicans have pulled papers, according to Masslive, but were not a part of Monday’s debate.

The primary is scheduled, unusually, for Thursday, September 8, to avoid conflicts with religious holidays and to comply with federal absentee ballot laws for military personnel.