Election 2019: Somerset County Sheriff Candidates Trade Jabs Over Use Of ‘Union Time’

Darrin Russo.

The issue of Franklin Township Police officers’ use of “union time” has made its way into the race for Somerset County Sheriff.

Republican Sheriff candidate Bill Parenti said in a report published on Aug. 22 that his Democratic opponent, retired FTPD Lt. Darrin Russo, should repay the township for the 273 hours of “union time” Russo took in 2016, prior to his retirement.

The use of “union time” by Russo and other members of the FTPD was detailed in an Aug. 6 story by the Franklin Reporter & Advocate.

“Union time” is a negotiated perk for members of the Franklin Township PBA locals which allows members to be paid straight time for conducting union business.

Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said on Aug. 6 that a review by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office – which has assumed control of the township police department since the sudden retirement of the chief and captain – revealed departmental “mismanagement” by its command staff. The potential “inappropriate” use of “union time” was held up as one example of that alleged mismanagement.

In an Aug. 22 article published by the “New Jersey Globe” – an online political publication – Parenti charged that Russo had “abused taxpayers” and called on him to repay the money he received from “union time.”

“My opponent should immediately pay back Franklin Township, and in turn, its taxpayers for the abuse of their trust and his 273 union time hours,” Parenti told the Globe. “Once again, I am stunned that that my opponent refuses to do the right thing by taxpayers. Leadership starts at the top, and as shown through his tenure in Franklin Township, my opponent is an expert at exploiting taxpayers.”

“At a time when municipal budgets and taxpayers are so squeezed, Darrin’s choice to manipulate a policy to his financial benefit speaks volumes,” Parenti said in the story. “His actions display his lack of leadership qualities and lack of qualifications to serve as sheriff.”

“At a time when morale and public trust in law enforcement within the community is diminishing, my opponent has chosen to pour gas on the fire” Parenti said. “I look forward to the conclusion of the Prosecutor’s investigation so we can gather an understanding of how badly my opponent has abused taxpayers.”

Russo struck back with an Aug. 23 statement, calling Parenti’s attack “cowardly.”

“I am disappointed at Chief Parenti’s willingness to launch cowardly attacks against myself and dozens of officers in Franklin Township,” Russo said in the statement. “For over thirty years I worked with these men and women to protect the public and build better relationships with our community. I am asking Chief Parenti to apologize to the officers whose character he is impugning.”

The “union time” policy was overseen by former FTPD Chief Lawrence Roberts, who is now “advising Mr. Parenti’s Republican campaign,” Russo said in his statement.

“Under the policy, officers could apply to use work time to participate in community events such as the Fourth of July fireworks, or a West African celebration, or a local charity fundraiser,” Russo said. “Each application would require the Chief’s signature.”

“Myself and dozens of officers followed those guidelines and used this policy to develop a rapport with the public that we found helpful in achieving lower crimes rates and a safer Franklin,” Russo’s statement said. “The administration of that program now finds itself under investigation, and I trust former Chief Roberts is cooperating fully with all investigative efforts. Obviously, if this outside investigation finds that the Department inappropriately administered this program resulting in abuse, the time should be repaid and the program should be either scrapped or revamped to ensure taxpayers are protected.”

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