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Editorial: Agnosticism on Residency, Zeal for the Rule of Law…

The courts may have the final word on residency...and perhaps much more in Springfield. (created via wikipedia, Spfld City Hall & WMassP&I images)

The courts may have the final word on residency…and perhaps much more in Springfield. (created via wikipedia, Spfld City Hall & WMassP&I images)

When Springfield at-large City Council Justin Hurst released his General Government Committee’s Thursday agenda, there were signs that the Council was inching toward a Rubicon. The meeting will discuss compliance with the city’s residency’s ordinance, expiration of waivers and the applicability to the fire chiefs, a particular concern of Hurst’s. But the magic “L” word was also there: litigation.

It may not be certain the courts will rule on the City Council new ordinance tightening waivers for city employees. But Mayor Domenic’s Sarno’s telegraphed intention to ignore the new rules after the Council overrode his veto certainly makes it quite likely. While we profess no strong position about residency for city employees, we adamantly support the enforcement of the law in Springfield.

Etched above the Hampden County Hall of Justice entrance are the words, “Obedience to Law is Liberty.” It is more than a slogan.

This blog’s concern for the deterioration of the rule of law in Springfield, in tandem with democracy, another ailing concept in the City of Homes, is nothing new. There is not anarchy in the streets, but the subtler laws of daily life in the city have been stretched, bent and ignored. The result is not criminality, but a contribution to the yawning gap between City Hall and Springfield residents.

A show of strength at last? (created via WMassP&I, Wikipidia, and Google image search)

A show of strength at last? (created via WMassP&I, Wikipidia, and Google image search)

The action the Council took earlier this month was an escalation of policy fight going on within 36 Court Street for years. On April 4, the Council voted to require department heads to live in the city and mandated other jobs with no qualified city applicant be reposted briefly to allow residents another chance to apply. The vote came over Sarno’s veto, which he claimed infringed on his powers under Springfield’s charter.

Though ignored since its modern inception in the 1990’s, the Control Board, on its way out in 2009, instituted waivers for the residency rules. Sarno, then a member of the Board voted against it. Since ward representation reshuffled the Council, there has been a growing movement among councilors to tighten residency. One such effort in 2013 failed.

While we have reported on this policy consistently and poked holes in gimp legal arguments against proposed reforms, we have not come down hard in favor or against. We still don’t. We are a Springfield institution and surely we want the city’s employees to choose the city as their home, but we recognize arguments on both sides.

While we largely spurn libertarianism as unrealistic hokum, governments ordering where people can live is problematic. More significantly, we worry this policy is seen as a panacea or fuels demagoguery.

William Mahoney . (via Still of Public Access)

William Mahoney . (via Still of Public Access)

Look no further than the yammering verbal abuse Human Resources/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney sustained April 4. Council President Michael Fenton had to step in and observe Mahoney’s success bringing more unions under the residency ordinance’s jurisdiction. While some residency advocates are earnest, we wonder whether opportunism and cynicism play as much a role as love for God and city do.

Yet, as Councilor Hurst noted on April 4, there are many underprivileged individuals in our city, many people of color, many going through our educational system, who could benefit greatly from a job with the city, a potential pathway out of poverty.

Thus, on the issue itself, the scales are balanced in our estimate.

However, Sarno does not rule this city by fiat.

Was a new era sworn in along with city government this past January? (WMassP&I)

Was a new era sworn in along with city government this past January? (WMassP&I)

The Council has acted to restrain waivers. Sarno claims this infringes on his powers and the legal opinions he cites no case or statute on point. Yes, Springfield has a strong mayor who can appoint without council confirmation, but nowhere does the charter say the Council cannot tailor the qualifications for jobs, establish broad city personnel policies or define how such things are enforced.

Springfield has a strong-mayor, not an omnipotent-mayor government.

Although residents could sue to enforce the new ordinance, too, the Council would be well within its rights to do so if it can secure legal counsel. It should, lest this whole endeavor truly was a charade. There are real legal questions in need of address and its implications run much deeper than residency.

The Council, in our reading of the charter, has broad authority to steer city operations toward more inclusion and establish policy that could address some of the city’s chronic problems. Asserting this power might also limit the mayor’s tendency to not appoint commissions and boards that might prove meddlesome and/or decentralize his authority.

Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Solicitor Ed Pikula, right, have tried to neuter the Council by legal opinion. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Solicitor Ed Pikula, right, have tried to neuter the Council by legal opinion. At left, Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy. (WMassP&I)

The mayor and his staff clearly fear this outcome. Rather than simply veto the measure by arguing flexibility is needed to attract the best talent, for example, he and his Law Department concocted an argument to neuter the Council.

This battle is necessary to establish the true lines of power in Springfield and perhaps force more collaboration across city government. This is a double-edged sword for councilors of course—having this power will demand more attention and creativity from them—but it could spur a broader outreach between City Hall and city residents.

Last year’s flaccid election turnout was an exclamation point on a broader problem of civic engagement in Springfield, not the first word.

Mayor Sarno would be wise to consider this going forward. It has always bewildered us why he, a man with exceptional retail political skills, would continue to exile the vast majority of residents from city government. Rather than fume at an aide’s print-out of our latest screed, he should consider our observations. A more engaged city, creative and productive councilors, and better resident-City Hall relationships can plant the seeds for the city to thrive on his watch.

True, residency is an awkward vessel for this voyage, but it has the political juice and underlying legal mechanics to set the course. If the mayor will not come aboard, than the Council should go forth full-steam ahead—as long as they, too, are committed to the cause and responsibility of a dynamic City Hall and deeper ties between Springfield’s governed and government.

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