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Governor's Council candidates debate at WNEC

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Three candidates for the District 8 Governor's Council seat met for a debate at Western New England College on Thursday and quickly established the differences between them.

Democratic candidate Thomas Merrigan emphasized his experience as a judge, while independent Michael Kogut stressed his career as an attorney. Republican candidate Michael Franco said he was neither a former judge nor a lawyer, but a candidate who would offer an "outsider's prospective" to the position.

The three men were asked questioned by Doug Lezette of CBS 3, Peter Goonan of The Republican, Ray Hershel of WGGB and Dan Elias of WWLP.

The Governor's Council is an eight-seat board headed by the sitting lieutenant governor that approves the governor's candidates for judicial appointments, as well as pardons and expenditures from the treasury. The position pays $25,000.

Massachusetts is one of two states that have such a procedure in confirming judges. In other states either judges are elected or appointed through approval from the legislature.

Kogut and Merrigan are employed as attorneys, while Franco is a veteran service agent for the city of Holyoke. Merrigan was a judge for 12 years and Kogut served as an assistant attorney general under Frank Bellotti and Scott Harshbarger. Franco is a United States Air Force veteran who also has been active in a number of organizations including the Fatherhood Coalition.

When asked if any of the men favored changing the way judges are confirmed both Kogut and Merrigan described the Governor's Council as a necessary check to a governor's power and would not favor seeing judges elected or confirmed by the Legislature.

Franco said if elected he wouldn't advocate a change in the role of the Governor's Council, but would work toward a recertification of judges through public elections. This way the public could have a say in removing judges who had what was determined as poor records of service.

When asked if being a former judge would create a conflict of interest, Merrigan said that being a 12-year veteran of the bench would be a "tremendous asset.'

"I know what the job is," he said. "I know the temperament that is needed."

Franco disagreed and said there would be "an inherent conflict of interest." He noted that Merrigan, as an attorney, is currently representing another judge on a legal issue.

Kogut, returning to his theme of being an independent, said he has a 13-page reform plan for the Council and that he would bring the Council for meetings in western Massachusetts.

When asked about how each candidate views the role of pardons in the criminal justice system, Franco said, "I'm not too hip on pardons. I'm a conservative Republican."

He added that he believes that pardons are political decisions and that he would be more oriented to victims and their families than to those convicted of a crime.

Kogut said a pardon is "a very difficult concept to appreciate" and that this country, while a nation of laws, is also one of forgiveness and redemption. He said he would look at each case carefully.

Merrigan stated the Council has no power to initiate a pardon and its role to examine the evidence of a case to determine if there were serious flaws or if someone's life has evolved.

None of the candidates said they had "litmus tests" to determine the appropriateness of an candidate.

Franco did say that his emphasis would be on making sure western Massachusetts candidates were appointed to judicial assignments in this part of the state.

When asked if the Council was just a "rubber stamp" to a governor's appointments, Franco and Kogut said they would question the appointments.

Merrigan said that the Council gets a "bad rap" on the question of being a rubber stamp and that it should approve a governor's choices if those candidates have the temperament and credentials to be a judge.

In his answer about ethnic diversity on the bench, Kogut said that if elected he would donate his salary to help low-income students at Springfield College and Western New England College.

In the round of answers to a question on why anyone would run for a fairly obscure position, Kogut said he believes in public service and wanted to revive what the Commonwealth's founding fathers had intended. Merrigan said he wanted to continue to serve the needs of the legal system.

Franco said that because he has acted an advocate in court cases the job will be a "good fit."

Drawing a laugh from the audience, Franco said, "The $25,000? I could use it." Much of what he does is volunteer work, he explained.