HACKENSACK – The final Bergen County Executive candidates’ forum on Tuesday night served as the last personal thrust and parry between Republican incumbent Kathleen Donovan and her Democratic challenger, Bergen Freeholder Jim Tedesco.
The two rivals, who wish to run the county seen as the bellwether in state politics, wasted little time in sparring over one of the most divisive issues in Bergen: whether to merge the Bergen County Police into the county Sheriff’s Office.
“County government in some ways fills in the gaps of what municipalities can do, but we need the municipalities to start sharing services. One of our roles is to act as a shared services coordinator,” said Donovan before a crowd of more than 150 people at the debate held inside of the freeholder chamber room in Hackensack and sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Donovan is opposed to the proposed merger, a point seized upon by Tedesco, who supports the move.
“One of the biggest and most profitable things that we can do in terms of saving taxpayer dollars is to realign the two departments,” said Tedesco, who claims the move will save taxpayers $200 million over 25 years. “She has fought this every step of the way.”
One of the major venues for combat between the Democrat-controlled freeholder board and Donovan has been in court.
“I had to say no a lot, because I had to inherit a corrupt government,” said Donovan, a reference to the influence on county politics of Joe Ferriero, the former Bergen Democratic chairman who was convicted on corruption charges in 2009. “Have I filed five lawsuits in four years? Yes I have, and every one was for the taxpayers of Bergen County. There are a lot of sheriff’s officers here, and I’m glad we brought that suit [against the sheriff’s department]. Now, the sheriff’s officers are the highest paid in the United States of America. We can’t afford it. Those lawsuits were the right thing to do.”
“We’ve incurred [thousands] in legal costs. Tell me what’s right about that,” countered Tedesco, the former mayor of Paramus. “That’s not right. You elect us so that we represent you, not so that we go to the courthouse and file a lawsuit every time we disagree. That’s the mentality of the present administration.This is not about the past. It’s about four years of constant litigation.”
The future of Bergen Regional Medical Center was another key issue up for debate. Tedesco announced at the candidates’ forum that he would work with U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ-9) and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, all Democrats, to transform part of the medical center into a Veterans’ Administration hospital.
“I don’t believe the hospital should be sold,” Tedesco said. “[Veterans] should get the care that they need, and we should revitalize the hospital though a third-party operator so that it works for the people, not for the people who own the contract.”
Donovan, who appointed a seven-member task force in September to study the future of the county-owned medical center in Paramus, noted that a variety of options need to be examined.
“We’ve got to protect the people who need it the most and protect the people who work there. Everything else is on the table,” Donovan said. “To say at the outset that we’re not selling it is very short-sighted. We don’t know what’s out there that could be better. Unless we have a lot of people giving their input, you’re not going to have the best answer.”
With 14 days days left until Election Day, Tedesco and Donovan gave their final answers in a debate forum as to why they should direct Bergen’s future.
“We’re not getting much done because of the current political gridlock,” Tedesco said. “I want to bring back Bergen’s quality of life through common sense initiatives. [Donovan] doesn’t execute, and we lose because of that.”
“In the last four years we have turned around Bergen County. I’ve saved you $219 million,” said Donovan, alluding to her claims of cost-cutting measures. “We are going to keep taxes low in Bergen County on the county level. I have fought a battle for you, and I want to keep fighting that battle.”