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Analysis: In the Spotlight, Sarno’s Nominating Process Echoes Key Springfield Woe…

Recent controversy over Sarno's boards and commission have left the mayor exposed to criticism. But the problem is bigger than that. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Recent controversy over Sarno’s boards and commission have left the mayor exposed to criticism. But the problem is bigger than that. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & Edwin Booth as Hamlet from files)

SPRINGFIELD—Some prognosticators sensed Domenic Sarno’s commanding win last November was missing one thing: a mandate. It was not because challenger, Salvatore Circosta, lacked the funds to fully compete, though he did. Rather, the depressingly low turnout robbed the mayor of the insulation newly reelected officials often receive. With a string of controversies surrounding boards the mayor appoints, his critics can now exploit this chink in his armor.

Last week City Council President Michael Fenton launched a broad condemnation against the mayor following news the Police Department’s complaint board’s last two annual reports remain unfiled and continued sturm und drang surrounding the Historical Commission. Though unstated in Fenton’s critique, this flare-up points to a continuous problem of Sarno’s administration: resident engagement.

Sarno responded sharply to the charge that the administration had dropped the ball on appointments to boards and police complaint report by jabbing Fenton for not allowing a Council vote on his Historical Commission nominees.

Sarno countered Fenton's criticism with complaints his nominations have not been acted upon. (WMassP&I)

Sarno countered Fenton’s criticism with complaints his nominations have not been acted upon. (WMassP&I)

“This charade that is going on with the council president is utterly ridiculous,” Sarno told Masslive. “If you don’t want to act on it, don’t hide behind a smoke screen.”

The historical nominations were not on the February 1 agenda and had the body voted on them, it would likely have violated the open meeting law. The current commisisoners continue to serve until their successors are confirmed.

Fenton’s release also needled the mayor for letting city boards like the Ethics Commission, the Residency Compliance Commission and the Youth Commission lie fallow.

Some speculate Sarno’s reticence to make appointments beyond what is necessary reflects the centralization of power within his office. Impossible to prove absent an admission, the more destructive aspect—beyond debatable policy outcomes—is the continued degradation of Springfield civic life as fewer folks have an opportunity to participate.

From left, Mayor Sarno with Senators Eric Lesser, Stanley Rosenberg and Don Humason at the Senate’s first Millennial engagement event. (via Springfield City Hall)

Speaking to WMassP&I at an event about Millennial engagement Friday, Sarno defended his appointments as a “prerogative of the mayor.” He deflected questions about why his administration does not advertise vacancies on boards and commissions to develop a broader (or different) pool of potential nominees.

“I’ve got people sending me inquiries all the time,” the mayor said referring to unsolicited interest. Building his appointee pool he added, “does happen informally.”

Unfortunately, this speaks to the limits of Sarno’s outreach efforts, not their potential. In Holyoke, for example, Mayor Alex Morse has sometimes broadcasted vacancies and some of nominees barely knew him when appointed. Some Morse allies have argued this helped fuel opposition to his mayoralty—long serving and often well-connected appointees were replaced by outsiders and relative nobodies.

With similar efforts in Chicopee and West Springfield, Massachusetts city halls up and down the Connecticut River appear more open and can blunt—both correctly and not—charges of favoritism.

Turnout in 2015 was the worst for a mayoral election (including uncontested races) on record. (WMassP&I)

Turnout in 2015 was abysmal for a mayoral election (including uncontested races) on record. (WMassP&I)

But not in Springfield where, given poor public participation at the polls, resident engagement is crucial.

Voter turnout has been bad in Springfield for decades, but 2015 was the worst on record for mayoral elections. Fairly or not, that can affect Sarno’s legitimacy in the eyes of potential businesspeople and residents.

Because ebbing civic interest is not entirely the mayor’s fault, the only way to counter that is to engage residents directly. An open casting call for boards—paired with a blunt explanation of the needed time investment—would burnish the city’s reputation, offer buy-in from residents on city policy and stifle reproach from political adversaries and self-important bloggers.

Maintaining a tight grip on appointments reflects Sarno’s old-school politics, but not necessarily the best of them. His convivial, sincere retail politicking is an indisputable political strength. But waving off Twitter in favor of letter-writing (why not both?) as he did speaking to WMassP&I betrays the gulf that has grown between himself and many Springfield residents. The only politician at the Millennial event without any social media pages attached to him or his office,  Sarno said he would consider a Twitter account.

The reluctance may be self-defeating, too. Instagram, for example, seems tailor-made for the ever photo-ready mayor. Social media also allows the mayor to bypass the media filter.

But in terms of appointments, no better example of a missed opportunity is the Historical Commission. Days after the November election, Sarno sent letters to commissioners Marjorie Guess, Robert McCarroll and Ralph Slate thanking them for their service. Word then got out about their replacements.

While, most scrutiny of Sarno’s Historical Commission nominations has centered on replacing only commissioners who sought more historic preservation from MGM, another concern is the appointment process was entirely opaque. The nominees were simply forwarded the Council for confirmation with no opportunity for the public to volunteer for consideration to serve on the unpaid commission.

Sarno has justified the burst of appointments as something that has lingered on his to-do list since becoming mayor in 2008.

The flap over Victoria Rowe’s nomination has missed a broader point about appointments in general. (via Facebook/Rowe campaign)

Particular attention has been paid to the nomination of Victoria Rowe to replace Guess. Yet the debate—such as it is—on her qualifications and the politics of her unsuccessful run against an incumbent city councilor obscures the fact that a more open process could have still netted her the nomination.

A former Sarno intern with ties to his deputy communications director, Darryl Moss, Rowe clearly had an in for the nomination. Being a woman of color, Rowe’s nomination did nothing to upset the Commission’s complexion. Sarno could have avoided this part of the nomination controversy by soliciting interest from the public and, unless an undeniably more qualified black woman applied, still nominated Rowe.

Instead Sarno kept it close and opened himself up to criticism. Dormant boards and commissions and unfiled reports lend themselves to the patina of a city firing on less than all cylinders and its ducks askew—a reputation that still bedevils Springfield despite positive economic and capital investment news.

Meanwhile the chasm between Springfield’s governed and its government only grows.