Sheriff candidates debate

Aug. 25, 2016 | G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – Both the audience and the candidates for sheriff maintained civility at the forum presented by the Armory Quadrangle Civic Association on Aug. 18 at the Classical Condos.

The board of the association assembled a list of nine questions that gave the candidates an opportunity to drive home positions they have been making through the summer.

On the subject of the Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center’s relocation to a location on Mill Street, for example, Governor’s Councilor Michael Albano said once again he doesn’t approve of the siting.

“It’s a good program in the wrong location,” he said, explaining it’s close to a charter school and the MGM Springfield location.

“You don’t put a jail in a neighborhood,” he stressed.

Assistant Deputy Superintendent James Gill believes the center should stay in Holyoke at the former Geriatric Authority complex, while Springfield City Councilor Thomas Ashe said the center stabilized the South End neighborhood the many years it was located on Howard Street  

“It will do the same for Mill Street,” he added.

Deputy Superintendent Cocchi noted the most recent legal appeal made by Albano had been denied – a statement to which Albano objected – and said he had recently walked through the former nursing home and said the facility would be state of the art.

“It works,” Cocchi said. “We change lives.”

John Comerford compared the center to a cell phone tower.

“No one wants one, but we all carry one of these [holding a cell phone] in our pocket.”

When asked about “criticisms directed at candidates based on lack of experience in the political correctional system, party affiliation, prior job performance, political opportunities, and more, Albano said he had “great respect for everyone here” and called them “good quality people.”

He added, “Whoever wins will be a good quality person … There is going to be change, what kind of change do you want?”

Ashe noted that experiences outside of corrections or politics are important as well, and cited his own job history with successful youth programs at YMCA of greater Springfield.

Cocchi said that while he is not a politician, he does have 23 years of correctional experience and said the sheriff will have to know how to govern.

Comerford repeated his stance the sheriff’s job does not require correctional experience, but instead is a manager position and he is a good manager.

Gill said when he hears criticism directed at him he “considers the source.” He said he “represents change so desperately needed in the Sheriff’s Department.”

When asked about improving the hiring process at the department and dealing with morale, Cocchi described the steps and details to ensure the best qualified people are hired. He said he understands that morale is low based at least in part of the retirement of Sheriff Michael Ashe and the uncertainly of the future.

Referring to the fact he started his career as a correctional officer he said, ‘I was that guy. I can relate to the men and women.”

Comerford he couldn’t speak to the issue of morale but he said he would speak to the representatives of the correctional officer’s union on a quarterly basis to clear up issues. He stressed he was not accepting any campaign contributions in order to remain independent.

Gill said the people hired at the jail must reflect the inmate population, which it doesn’t at this time. He said morale is at its lowest in the 25 years he has been working in the Sheriff’s Department because of “the strong arm techniques” revolving around the election of a new sheriff along with not enough opportunities for advancement.

Albano noted he received the endorsement of the correctional officers’ union and, that if elected, he would bring in an independent body to review all hires.

He added he has not accepted any political contributions from any Sheriff’s Department employee.

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