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Sheriff Candidates Hold Lively First Debate

candidates for sheriff debate
Fred Gore

Five of the candidates for sheriff in Hampden County, Massachusetts had their first chance to make a direct case to voters as they participated in a primetime debate this week.

The five candidates talked up their qualifications and experiences, highlighted differences over how they see the sheriff’s role in combating the opioid addiction crisis gripping the state, and discussed transparency in the $70 million department that has been run by the same person for almost four decades.

Hampden County Sheriff Mike Ashe, the longest-serving sheriff in the state, is retiring. It has set up the first competitive election for the office in a generation.  Ashe has not stayed quiet on the sidelines. In the run-up to the first debate he endorsed fellow Democrat Nick Cocchi, a Deputy Superintendent with the sheriff’s department and criticized another candidate, Governor’s Councilor and former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano, also a Democrat.

During the debate, hosted by Focus Springfield Community Television, Albano and Cocchi clashed over the opioid crisis, with Albano calling for a “global approach.”

" This is a public health crisis, and to suggest that the current model is working is simply wrong," said Albano.

Cocchi said the department has been on the cutting edge of treating substance abuse, establishing an alcohol treatment center in 1985 and opening an opioid dependency program in 2001.

" I am very very proud of what we have done for addiction services to date, and I know we can continue on that same platform under a Nick Cocchi administration."

Albano proposes building a 200-bed treatment center on the grounds of the Hampden County House of Corrections in Ludlow and has criticized Ashe for wanting to put the center in a former nursing home in Springfield.

" It is the wrong program in the wrong place," declared Albano.

Cocchi said the Springfield facility would be a good neighbor.

" There will be no fences, no barbed wire.  There will be no alarms sounding. It will conducive to treatment," said Cocchi.

Placing the treatment center in Springfield, close to community-based resources, was endorsed by another Democratic candidate, Jack Griffin, a retired addiction specialist with the Connecticut Department of Corrections.

"Sixty-seven percent of those kids that are in Ludlow are coming back to Springfield, so the support services are in Springfield, he said.

Albano called for increased transparency in the sheriff’s department and called on the state auditor to review some of the accounts.

Springfield City Councilor Tom Ashe, a Democrat who is not related to the current sheriff, said if elected, he would create an open checkbook available for the public to see anytime online.

" I would also form an advisory board made up of representatives of each of the 23 cities and towns in Hampden County to ( work) in cooperation with the sheriff's department to know where the money is being spent in each community, " said Ashe.

Cocchi, again, defended the department.

" We deal with state and federal agencies on a constant basis coming in and seeing what we are doing," said Cocchi.  " The Hampden County Sheriff's Dept. is audit-ready everyday. That is how we operate."

Assistant Deputy Superintendent James Gill, who is running as an independent for sheriff, promised to regularly report to the public.

" It is going to be a county correctional report on a quarterly basis that will be published so that every citizen can take a look at it and find out what is going on from a financial perspective," said Gill.

Gill said the most pressing need at the sheriff’s department is for a new administrator.

" I believe we need someone to help boost the morale of the staff of the department," he said.

Ashe, who has worked in corrections in both Hampden and Worcester counties, said, if elected, he would schedule a series of roundtables with the corrections officers to get to the bottom of the morale issues.

" There is a cultural problem at the jail where the officers feel they are not being treated fairly, are being left out and not part of the team," said Ashe.

The four Democrats will square off on the September 8th primary ballot. Gill will be on the November election ballot.

( Editors note- WAMC's Paul Tuthill participated on a media panel that questioned the candidates )

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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