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Analysis: The Rusting Rule of Law in Springfield…

UPDATED 9:17AM: For grammar & clarity.

There is unused power in this room. (WMassP&I)

There is unused power in this room and letting it idle has legal and civic consequences. (WMassP&I)

Last week the Springfield City Council stood up and demanded that Mayor Domenic Sarno (as well as other appointing authorities) fulfill their obligations and appoint individuals to dormant boards and commissions of the city. As important as that public display was, it is not altogether clear whether that declaration is enough to counter the continued deterioration of Springfield’s legal code.

The Council named the Ethics Commission, the Residency Compliance Commission and the Youth Commission as those to which Sarno must make appointments. An amendment to the resolve added the Human Relations Commission. However, the Council itself has been derelict allowing city government to be reorganized without the blessing of ordinance.

The result has been a growing lawlessness at 36 Court Street. This is lawlessness does not jeopardize public safety nor represents any flagrant, illicit behavior. However, it does seem to mirror a broader breakdown of Springfield’s civic and political institutions.

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno has blamed his busy schedule for not making appointments to some boards and commissions. However, the bodies he usually blanks are those that will not seize up the city if left moribund and/or those that, if active, could diffuse the power concentrated in his office.

None of the bodies the Council named provide a direct service to the public or are mandated under state statute. Compare this to the Historical and License commissions, both imbued with state power and both essential to the function of the city. Were either to be go without a quorum, liquor licenses (and complaints) could not be issued and upkeep of properties in historic districts would grind to a halt.

A few councilors have claimed that it is mayor’s prerogative not to appoint, but that is not true either. The enacting ordinances for all of the bodies the Council mentioned in its resolve lack permissive language meaning the mayor can appoint whomever meets the ordinance’s qualifications, but he must appoint somebody.

Councilors were right to call out the mayor, but culpable in their own right, too. (WMassP&I)

Councilors were right to call out the mayor, but culpable in their own right, too. (WMassP&I)

But the problem runs deeper than city boards being disincorporated by omission. The Council has contributed, too. The city charter explicitly grants the body the power to build and reconfigure the structure of departments. That alone would give them immense power to affect public policy and even influence the budget outside the once-a-year spending review.

Instead, many councilors peculiarly ascribe to the fiction that the Council is principally a land use body. Perhaps after years of mayoral (not just Sarno) bullying and running roughshod over them, councilors suffer from a legislative psychological disorder. More cynically, councilors may see land use as among their few exclusive powers and, given the demand for permits, zone changes and variances, a means to develop a pool of campaign contributors.

Whatever, their reasoning, that impression is wrong. The Council can review and revise ordinances, particularly those that form city government and develop policy accordingly. Others ordinances are grossly out of date and in need of revision to match the current reality of governance.

The city’s well-received merger of Human Resources and Labor Relations in the twilight of the Control Board era remains uncodified in city ordinance. While it is possible a Control Board order effected the change (the city clerk’s office was not available to confirm whether one exists), no ordinance reflects this. Thus on the books, the city retains both a director of HR and one for Labor Relations—as well as two separate departments—but both are exercised by one person.

William Mahoney's seven year tenure heading HR & Labor Relations has gone well. But ordinance still has not caught up with the times. (via Still of Public Access)

William Mahoney has done well leading HR & Labor Relations, but seven years on, the ordinance underpinning his position has still not caught up with the times. (via Still of Public Access)

This adds ambiguity to the combined position however competent and effective the incumbent, William Mahoney, has been.

Another example is the Community Development department, a sprawling bureaucracy that scoops up huge swaths of city government under a 2008 state law. Departments from planning to housing to code enforcement were folded into this mega-department supervised by a development czar, currently Kevin Kennedy. Major city departments are subordinate to Kennedy and countless others, though substantively independent, are reliant on his office for staff support. For example, the Historical Commission’s bare bit of staffing comes out of the city planner’s office.

Ordinance largely does not reflect the changes the 2008 law made. As a practical matter, state law, supersedes the ordinance. Yet, the 2008 law was not comprehensive in describing the structure of the new bureaucracy. Thus, in addition to retooling ordinances to comply with the 2008 law, councilors still have latitude to tinker with the structure and policy of the underlying city agencies.

The Council’s failure to manage ordinances may ultimately be more harmful than dormant boards as it deprives both themselves and residents of a check on the executive branch.

In some ways these abdications reflect a broader breakdown of the city’s body politic and nobody is willing or able to step in and change it.

In other cities, civil rights or public interest groups would threaten lawsuits or investigate flaws of this pro forma system.



But litigation or even the prospect of it can be expensive and most local groups lack the resources to fund such an effort.  Statewide good-government organizations have little or no presence in the commonwealth’s third largest city. Those that do must focus their limited finances on more tangible battles with the powers that be.

Even as elected leaders praise tangible good news in Springfield, there remains a decayed civic virtue that haunts the city. Glib assessments that nonparticipation indicates resident satisfaction are bad enough. The continued breakdown of the legal artifice underpinning the city only adds to and compounds citizen indifference and the city’s poor reputation for public engagement.