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Rivals in Berkshire sheriff's contest let the accusations fly. 'Woefully misinformed,' one says. 'A sheriff not equipped to do the job'

You don’t care enough, says the challenger. You don’t know enough, says the incumbent.

Broad accusations continued to characterize jousting Monday between two candidates for Berkshire County sheriff, in a debate that showcased their disagreements ahead of the Sept. 6 Democratic Party primary.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler portrayed himself to an audience at the Berkshire Athenaeum as a public servant interested in building community partnerships, starting with his election in 2010. “The one thing I realized was how underutilized the sheriff's office was in the community,” Bowler said.

His rival, Alfred E. “Alf” Barbalunga, introduced himself as a change agent for a system he brands as top heavy administratively.

The two at times exchanged sharp words and accusations.

When given the chance to question each other, Bowler asked Barbalunga: “How can you be so woefully misinformed about the operations of the jail?”

In turn, Barbalunga said this to Bowler: “Unfortunately, I suspect I know more about your operations than you do. … This is pretty much a story of a sheriff here that either is not equipped to do the job or does not want to do the job or somewhere in between.”

Here is a recap on key points and views expressed by the candidates:

Bringing women detainees now held at a facility in Chicopee back to Berkshire County.

Barbalunga again listed that as his top priority, in his closing statement and at other points.

“​​I will start the planning and identifying and reallocate additional resources to bring our female detainees and inmates back to Berkshire County,” he said. “Our Berkshire County women. … The bottom line is treating women equally is what we're going to do — and separate but equal is not equal.”

Bowler said, as he has in recent weeks, he believes women detainees receive better care and programming in Chicopee, despite any stress that the distance imposes on them or their families. Bowler said he recently visited the Chicopee facility and spoke with women detained there. “And not one of them said they want to come back to Berkshire County, not one,” Bowler said. “It’s what’s right for the women. Not what’s right for either one of us.”

Managing the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction.

Barbalunga assailed Bowler’s oversight of the office’s budget and called its operations a “systemic failure.”

“Our team definitely would spend that money in a different way,” he said. “What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is about spending money on the inmates’ rehabilitation. … And we would definitely bypass some of the other expenditures.”

Bowler rejected Barbalunga’s characterization of the office and suggested his opponent is disrespectful to people in uniform.

“We have forged so many community relationships. It's amazing the number of people or agencies in Berkshire County who are knocking at our door to be partners with us,” Bowler said. “And that doesn't come lightly. It comes from hard work from the sea of blue that you see in this background here. It's those individuals there that you're bashing on a continual basis.”

Assisting agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on cases that arise in Berkshire County.

Both candidates said they would cooperate with ICE, but suggested that would be within limits. Bowler said he would not house federal detainees on immigration cases. Barbalunga said he would cooperate with ICE to the “bare minimum.”

Views on the district attorney’s recent investigation into the fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella on March 25.

Barbalunga said he believes Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington did an “outstanding job” in overseeing a monthslong probe of the shooting, which found that the Pittsfield officer involved acted in self-defense.

”She did her job. I think she did it well. I think at the end of the day, [it was] a horrible horrible situation, but that was the right call,” Barbalunga said.

Bowler was more measured, calling the probe “thoroughly done” but acknowledging other parties involved. “I thought it was handled well. And presented well to the community ... by the DA, law enforcement and the mayor's office.”

The candidates agreed that inmates should have access to free phone calls, but not unlimited ones.

The winner of the Sept. 6 primary faces no opponent in the November general election. 

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

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