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Township Residents Help Make Somerset County History

Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders Director Shanel Robinson is given the Oath of Office by Gov. Phil Murphy at the Freeholders’ reorganization meeting. Robinson is the first African-American to be named Freeholder Director.

SOMERVILLE – Franklin Township residents played a pivotal part in the historic 2020 Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders reorganization meeting on January 3.

A packed audience in the Historic Courthouse saw township resident Shanel Robinson become the first African-American Freeholder Director in Somerset County history, and also saw retired Franklin Township Police Lt. Darrin Russo ceremoniously sworn in as the first Democrat to hold the Sheriff’s position since the mid-1960s.

With the addition of Melonie Marano to the Freeholder board, this is the first year since 1965 that the Democrats have had a majority on the board.

Marano and Russo won their elections in November to continue a Democratic surge that began in the 2018 election.

For the third consecutive year, Gov. Phil Murphy was on hand to conduct some of the swearing-ins. Murphy said he was “humbled” to be at the event.

Noting that he is attending reorganizations across the state, Murphy said that he could say, “with complete conviction that this is the biggest crowd, it’s got the most energy, and it’s the most bi-partisan room that I’ve been in this year.”

In her remarks after being sworn-in as Freeholder Director, Robinson read off a laundry list of accomplishments the Freeholders had among all departments in 2019, including the Diversity Festival, live-streaming of Freeholder meetings, and Curbing Hunger Month.

“It’s because of the great people who work with us and for us that we can make this happen,” she said.

“Going forward, our number one mission is to put people first,” she said. “It’s our obligation to make sure we are addressing the needs of every person in Somerset County.”

Among the goals for 2020 are opening up the application process for county commissions through online applications, looking at how services are delivered to the needy and re-energizing the community college and vocational education programs, she said.

Robinson said she would “extend my hand” to work together with the board’s two remaining Republicans, Brian Gallagher and township resident Brian Levine.

Robinson also addressed her place in Somerset County history.

“While I did not set out to be the first African American Somerset County Freeholder, nor the first African American Freeholder Director in Somerset County, I am honored to be,” she said, to thunderous applause. “For me, this is heart work, not hard work.”

“However, I would like to be remembered as being a servant leader who works for the people and on behalf of the people,” she said. “As a servant leader, so much is given, much is required.”

“It’s great to be back in uniform again, I can tell you that,” Russo said as he began his remarks after being ceremoniously sworn in. Russo was formally sworn in to his position on Jan. 2.

“I want to thank the voters of Somerset County for choosing me as Sheriff,” he said. “Putting your trust in me is humbling, and it’s such an honor to serve Somerset County.”

Russo also thanked his family for their support during his two campaigns for Sheriff.

Russo said he would use experience gained as a Franklin cop in his new role.

“As a 30-year veteran with the Franklin Township Police Department, I’ve learned first-hand the value of partnership with schools, with places of worship, to protect families against the dangers of today’s society,” Russo said. “So I’m ready to take that experience in Franklin Township to the county level.”

“It’s what’s going to make the community and us bond together and work together,” he said. “It’s an exciting time in Somerset County. A time for new leadership. I’m always committed to doing better for the people of Somerset County.”

Levine, a former township mayor, served as the Freeholder Director in 2019. At the 2020 reorganization, he was voted by his colleagues to be the acting director for the year.

“My goal s to continue to fulfill the 1,000 dreams of Somerset County,” he said. “The dreams of our students, of our moms and dads, all the workers … the teachers, the police, the tradespeople, the emergency workers, everyone else, the people who live, laugh and cry here in Somerset County.”

“You deserve an ear to listen to you, you deserve a voice to speak up for you,” he said. “The entire Freeholder board is your ear and your voice.”

“All together we complete this beautiful mosaic which is Somerset County,” he said. “And the stones may change a little bit, and the pattern may shift, and the frame may lilt a little bit at times, too. But the mosaic is still radiant and exquisite.”

The Franklin Reporter & Advocate live-streamed the ceremony:

We live-streamed this year’s historic Somerset County reorganization at the historic Somerville Courthouse. Former Township Councilwoman Shanel Robinson became the first African-American to be elected by her Freeholder colleagues as Freeholder Director, and former FTPD Lt. Darrin Russo was seine in as Somerset County Sheriff.

Posted by The Franklin Reporter & Advocate on Friday, January 3, 2020

Here are some scenes from the ceremony:

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