TEANECK – At the first Bergen County Executive candidates’ forum on Thursday, Republican incumbent Kathleen Donovan and her challenger, Democratic Freeholder Jim Tedesco, displayed both knowledge of the issues and a palpable degree of personal dislike.
The 90-minute debate, held before a crowd of more than 150 people at the Teaneck Public Library and sponsored by Bergen Grassroots, a citizen activist group, drew out the candidates’ positions on critical concerns facing Bergen County, often seen as the bellwether in statewide elections.
Donovan and Tedesco notably sparred on the question of the proposed merger of the Bergen County Police Department with the county sheriff’s department. Donovan opposes the move, while Tedesco and the majority of the Democratic-controlled freeholder board support it.
“The realignment plan is never going to work, because the sheriff’s officers, many of whom are here this evening, they’re the highest paid in the country,” Donovan said, advocating the increased use of shared services instead. “That kind of realignment will cost millions of dollars.”
“The realignment will save 200 million dollars, flat out,” Tedesco replied. “None of the figures [provided by Donovan to the freeholder board] add up. Over 25 years, you, the taxpayers, will have increased law enforcement service and save 200 million dollars.”
Tedesco and Donovan also differed over the potential use of two mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, by the sheriff’s department.
Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino stated last month that he will delay deploying the vehicles until state and federal officials finish their reviews of the program under which police departments across the country acquired the surplus equipment free of charge.
Donovan agreed with the delay, but also called on the freeholders to reverse their vote from earlier this year allowing the sheriff to obtain the military-grade vehicles from the U.S. Defense Department. The county executive also called for a one-year moratorium on purchasing any other military vehicles so that the issue could be fully aired in public.
Saudino averred that Donovan’s real reason for her reservations about the vehicles are tied to the ongoing debate over the merger of the Bergen County Police Department with the sheriff’s department.
“I have said that I’m against MRAPs in Bergen County. We don’t need them , we shouldn’t have them,” Donovan said. “If we have a situation where we need a tank, we’re going to call in the National Guard.”
But Tedesco referred to the County Police’s use of the BearCat vehicle, which is military grade.
“The reality is that in certain situations, armored vehicles are needed,” Tedesco said, noting the Donovan’s administration’s purchase of the BearCat.
After Donovan stated that Tedesco was “mistaken” because the BearCat is merely “a bomb detection vehicle,” Tedesco had a pointed reply.
“I guess in Garfield the other day it was looking for a bomb instead of responding to a hostage situation,” said Tedesco to loud applause from a crowd that was packed with a majority of Tedesco supporters, including a significant contingent of sheriff’s officers. “She just wants to make sure she controls her own army.”
After some additional back-and-forth about the MRAP issue, the debate moderator asked Donovan if she had a rebuttal for Tedesco.
“No, because you can’t make somebody not be stupid,” Donovan said.
When asked about whether a casino should be built in North Jersey, including potentially at the site of the American Dream Meadowlands project in East Rutherford, Tedesco and Donovan demonstrated another point of divergence.
“My position on bringing gambling to Bergen County is that absolutely I support it. But we better do it quick,” Tedesco said. “If it opens up in New York State, the window is going to close.”
“If there is going to gambling in Bergen County, it’s up to the voters,” Donovan said. “Put it on the ballot, have a referendum, and let people decide and tell us whether they want gambling [in the Meadowlands] or not.”
The next scheduled county executive candidate debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, will be held on Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the freeholder chambers at the County Administration building at 1 Bergen County Plaza in Hackensack.