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The candidates for Berkshire sheriff appeared together for a conversation about the issues. Then things got personal

sheriff candidates shake hands

Dan Valenti, center, ducks as Alfred E. “Alf” Barbalunga, left, and Sheriff Tom Bowler shake hands after their debate for Valenti’s website “Planet Valenti." Barbalunga is challenging Bowler in his bid for reelection. 

PITTSFIELD — The candidates for Berkshire County sheriff engaged in heated conversation Monday in which the subject matter progressed from the political to the personal.

With less than month left to campaign, incumbent Thomas Bowler and challenger Alfred “Alf” Barbalunga took part in a series of often argumentative exchanges during the hourlong election season event moderated by local blogger Dan Valenti, who let the candidates pose opening questions to one another to kick off the afternoon.

In response to Barbalunga’s inquiry, Bowler said he plans to serve out a full six-years if reelected for a third term. Bowler asked Barbalunga how precisely he would return the female inmate population to the Berkshire County jail facility on Cheshire Road — which he has been pledging to do if elected.

“The process would begin on Day One, for sure,” Barbalunga said. “We will arrange it as a courtesy for [Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi], figure out the best timing for him, transportation, the facility, what pods we will use,” he said. “As you know, you’re currently about 38 percent capacity.”

Asked by Valenti how much it will cost to house female inmates at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, he did not provide a number, but indicated it would not have a “net effect” on the budget. “We will be reevaluating and re-appropriating current staff” to serve women, he said, “and perhaps we will add the staff.”

Bowler took issue with Barbalunga’s use of the phrase “our women” to refer to females who are held in custody, calling it “possessive” in nature. Bowler again defended the practice of housing incarcerated women in Chicopee, saying it affords women the best chance of rehabilitation.

“In today’s day and age, if a woman is incarcerated, then things are bad for them. Substance use disorder, violent crime, victims of violent crime, sexual abuse, victims of sexual abuse, all these challenges they have to overcome, and [the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee has] a renowned staff doing that right now. To bring them back to Berkshire County would be a detriment to their therapy, to their counseling, to their treatment,” Bowler said. “None of those things are going to be in place when you bring them back.”

The conversation flowed into sometimes fractious dialogues in the closed-door conference room, which grew hotter inside as the hour progressed with a handful of people associated with both campaigns looking on. It was all captured on tape by a cameraman for Valenti, and a separate one there from the Barbalunga campaign.

Barbalunga, who is chief probation officer of the Southern Berkshire District Court, charged that Bowler’s leadership team lacked adequate representation of women, Black people and Latinos. Both candidates accused one another of being “no-show” leaders in the office, a charge both candidates denied.

Barbalunga pivoted, saying his team hears “a number of things about Tom and his wife, Tom and other interactions.”

“What do you mean by other interactions?” Bowler asked.

“Did he mention you?” he added, turning to his wife, Dayle, who was seated beside him.

Bowler told Barbalunga to “keep my wife out of this.”

A testy exchange followed during which Barbalunga suggested that someone connected to Bowler’s wife was responsible for a series of negative social media statements directed against his campaign.

Valenti jumped back into the fray. He said that “questions of womanizing have come up for both of you,” allegations Valenti said were worth exploring because the responses may speak to the character of the candidates.

“Are you a womanizer?” Valenti posed to both candidates. “Do you have complaints against you for sexual harassment?”

Barbalunga said, “absolutely not,” before being asked directly by Valenti whether he has been “faithful to his vows.”

“I have a wonderful marriage going on 13 years,” Barbalunga said. “If you’re asking me if I’ve ever had any infidelity, the answer is no.”

Bowler responded in kind.

“I consider myself a great, a good sheriff, a real good sheriff, and a wonderful husband, and a faithful husband to my wife and my family,” he said.

Valenti raised the issue of post-retirement payments made to Jack Quinn, formerly the superintendent of the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction.

The topic was previously raised by the Barbalunga campaign, who derided it as an example of what he termed Bowler’s “payroll empire.” Bowler defended the move, saying Quinn retired from the office in 2021, but continued working on two projects associated with the Second Street Second Chances program, saying the office compensated Quinn through grants received for the projects Quinn worked on.

Barbalunga declined to say who he was voting for in the Berkshire District Attorney race. While he said he worked on incumbent Tim Shugrue’s failed 2004 campaign for DA, he “will support Andrea every day of the week while she’s in office.”

“I will never publicly say I’m supporting Tim or Andrea, because it burns bridges,” Barbalunga said.

Bowler is backing Shugrue.

But he added that “if Tim were to lose and Andrea Harrington stays in office, my office will still continue to work with her office.”

Bowler was asked by Valenti about his view of Harrington’s record, and declined to comment, saying only that “her philosophy is totally different from mine and is totally different from Tim’s.”

The candidates were afforded a moment to tell voters why they should vote for them in the Sept. 6 primary election, when voters will decide who will receive a six-year term as sheriff in Berkshire County, where there is no Republican candidate on the ballot.

Barbalunga said he will direct money to rehabilitation, will support women, promote cultural diversity, and serve a maximum of two terms in office if elected. Bowler touted partnerships his office has with local institutions, fire departments and EMS, and his experience in law enforcement.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6296.

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