Parks scandal gives Dems a shot in Somerset

Somerset County hasn’t elected a Democratic Freeholder since 1979, but Democrats think that this year they just might be able to capitalize on Republican misfortune and pull it off.

This year, two women from the small town of Green Brook are battling it out to see whether the county’s five-member freeholder board will remain all Republican, or whether it will be joined by a lone Democratic voice for the first time since 1982, after Christie Whitman took the seat from Michael Ceponis. The Democrats have fielded Green Brook Committeewoman Melonie Marano, while Republican’s have tapped the town’s mayor, Patricia Walsh.

Democrats hope that a local parks commission scandal, a national anti-Republican climate and a county that’s changing demographically will combine and propel the candidacy of Marano to the freeholder seat being vacated by Assembly candidate Denise Coyle. But Republicans say they’ve created a legacy of good government, and have even brought in Rudy Giuliani to rally support for local candidates.

The Democrats are not without reason to hope. Last year, Democratic Freeholder candidate Louise Wilson came within 1,716 votes of unseating Republican incumbent Jack Ciaterelli. The other Democrat running, Dennis Sullivan, was another 1,313 votes behind. And in 2004, Somerset was one of two counties in the state where Kerry did better than Gore did in 2000, although he failed to carry it.

And that was all before the scandal over the county’s parks commission erupted.

A June report by the law firm Wolff and Samson that was commissioned by the freeholder Board showed a host of alleged abuses and oversights by commissioners in the Somerset County Parks Commission, and revealed that some employees were living in rent-free or under appraised houses and apartments and receiving unnecessary county vehicles. Soon after, the Attorney General’s office began probing the commission, and a campaign issue was born (and, according to Politifax, a rift between Somerset County Republican Chairman Dale Florio and Assemblyman/State Senate candidate Kip Bateman, whose father helped found the commission in 1957).

“We don’t have any checks and balances right now on the freeholder level, and we haven’t had any in 25 years,” said Marano, who was on her way to a press conference with local Chinese-language media. “Where that’s leaving us is the situation with the parks commission – when you see it, you see the arrogance of this team.”

While the parks commission operates as an independent entity, its commissioners are appointed by the freeholder board, which also partially funds it. Marano and other county Democrats blame them for not exercising proper oversight and therefore being at least partially culpable for the mess. Moreover, they say, the freeholder board voted 3-2 not to dissolve the agency and bring all of its functions under the county’s purview, but rather to take on some of its responsibilities, replace several of its commissioners and revisit the situation in December.

Democrats fault the freeholders for not putting the decision of whether to dissolve the department on the ballot this November to let voters decide.

“Millions of county tax dollars a year are given to this agency,” said County Democratic Chairman Elia Pelios. “The sign on Harry Truman’s desk didn’t say ‘the buck stops out there.’”

But the Democrats may face one obstacle in making the race about the commission – Walsh was not on the freeholder board at the time, and has taken the position that the commission should be dissolved.

“I took a very firm stand on that,” said Walsh, who said that Marano took a position on the commission before her, but only because she waited until the report was released. “I waited until I could get a copy of that report. This is the difference of experience in government- you don’t need to do knee-jerk reactions.”

Walsh, who works as a home care nurse, touts her 14 years of government experience in Green Brook – 11 of them as mayor – as her biggest advantage over Marano, who has sat on the town’s committee for four years.

Both candidates say that they’ll leave step down from their other positions if elected.

Florio, the county’s Republican chairman since 1992, said that last year’s close call in the freeholder race was more a reflection of a toxic national climate for Republicans than a reflection of how the party is perceived in Somerset. Walsh’s call for the board to be resolved rather than to be put to a vote is ahead of Marano’s stance on the issue, he said.

And the county’s population increase and changing Demographics don’t necessarily bode ill for Republicans.

“I don’t think you can sell any ethnic or racial group short – we certainly don’t,” said Florio. “I think they’re all up for grabs and we would hope that they would look at what they have locally and give us a shot.”

Parks scandal gives Dems a shot in Somerset