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Analysis: Pearl Street Woes Put Sarno in Unfamiliar Place…at a Disadvantage

UPDATED 10/30/16 1:17PM: For Grammar and clarity.

Something rotten in the Land of Springfield nags at Sarno. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Something rotten in the Land of Springfield nags at Sarno. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

The case of Detective Gregg Bigda has rocked Springfield in a way few other police events have in some time and the contagion has spread throughout the Springfield Police Department. Concerns about civil rights and doubts about Police Commissioner John Barbieri are piling up, but the dirty laundry at the department’s Pearl Street headquarters is spilling out into the open, too.

But this situation has prompted a broader political maelstrom at the center of which is Mayor Domenic Sarno. The Bigda case, national conversations about police misconduct and sharpened critiques from emboldened city councilors have put an unprecedented political squeeze on a mayor used to making all the power plays in city government.

Videos allegedly show Bidga cussing out and threatening to plant evidence against juvenile suspects accused of stealing an unmarked police car. The tapes, upon release to the suspects’ attorneys though now sealed by the courts, have prompted a rash of controversies, accusations and investigations.

Barbieri came under fire for only suspending Bigda 60 days instead of terminating him. He says city lawyers told him termination would not withstand civil service appeals. Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office has dismissed or pled out cases involving the detective. The fate of other cases remain uncertain. Both the US Attorney and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office have launched civil rights probes.

Gregg Bigda is the officer in middle of above tweet’s photo.

Into this maw hurtles Sarno, who has jealously guarded his power and, as some would argue, has consolidated it since the Finance Control Board packed up in 2009.

The City Council is preparing to reignite efforts to reestablish a police commission and transfer to it discipline authority Barbieri now holds, thereby diffusing the mayor’s power and influence over Pearl Street.

The 2016-2017 City Council to succeed wher the 2014-2015 Council failed? (WMassP&I)

The 2016-2017 City Council boldly going where the 2014-2015 Council did not? (WMassP&I)

Councilors are expected to introduce legislation reviving a police commission by its next meeting in mid-November. They tried this in 2013-2014 as then-Commissioner William Fitchet prepared to retire, but second thoughts delayed action until after Sarno inked an employment contract with Barbieri.

Sarno has said a commission is unnecessary. What is now the Community Police Hearing Board currently hears community complaints and makes discipline recommendations. Barbieri has the final say per his contract. He and Fitchet are said to have always accepted or exceeded the board’s advice and Barbieri claims he is not afraid to deal with misbehaving officers where appropriate.

Critics consider the board toothless, note the mayor makes all appointments and, having been instituted under executive order, subject to change at any time. A 2011 attempt to codify it in ordinance failed under pressure from police officers who—at the time—wanted a board where they could air internal complaints, too.

Any diffusion of power will limit the ability of City Hall to micromanage Pearl Street. (via Twitter/@spd_hq)

Any diffusion of power will limit the ability of City Hall to micromanage Pearl Street. (via Twitter/@spd_hq)

Any police commission the Council passes into ordinance would challenge or even undermine Sarno’s power. Under the city charter he would appoint, without councilors’ input, any board the Council could create. Still, control would shift out the mayor’s office, buffering Pearl Street from City Hall. Every step of the decision-making process would be subject to open meeting law. If the Control Board-imposed abolition of the commission were fully reversed, hiring, organization and policy would again be decided determined—or litigated—in public.

The mayor has maintained that a single commissioner—for both Police and Fire who are outside of civil service—removes the politics in those departments.

That premise is flawed. Contrary to Sarno’s claims during the 2014 police commission push, there is no regional consensus on police leadership. The old police and fire commissions were rife with politics and their sprawling departments—the city’s biggest after schools—were not easily managed by a body that meets only so many times a month.

Yet, Sarno is the dominant force behind the single police and fire commissioners. Their leverage to ensure independence is limited to the length of their employment contracts, but the mayor’s grip on municipal finances and keen interest in public safety seems stronger. Sarno has not been afraid to use these powers to intervene in Pearl Street’s affairs, city sources have claimed.

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri. (WMassP&I)

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri. (WMassP&I)

The Council’s push to recreate a police commission may strengthen Barbieri’s hand. At this moment, the Council probably has the nine votes needed to override a mayoral veto. Barbieri’s contract would stay any such ordinance until it expires in 2019, though.

The same contract limits the mayor’s right to dismiss Barbieri without penalty to “poor performance” or for cause, but what would that be? Following a Law Department recommendation not to fire Bigda? The mayor’s mere suggestion he resign, while doubtful, would trigger Barbieri’s right to nine months’ severance pay. This carries substantial political and financial risk for Sarno and could be pointless without a successor standing by.

Barbieri is more likely to stay anyway and could use his leverage, to limit political interference from 36 Court Street, as has been alleged in the past.

Already a portrait of a department beset by factionalism and favoritism, as reported by The Republican’s Stephanie Barry, has emerged. Ex-officer Steven Vigneault—the cop whose car the juveniles allegedly stole and who, some believe, kicked one of the suspects—claims he was told to resign or he would be fired.

Vigneault claimed Bigda had earlier threatened his career in the narcotics bureau where they both worked—the two had clashed over a woman. He also alleged Bigda enjoyed internal support and influence within Pearl Street that Vigneault lacked. Indeed, Vigneault is out while Bigda, who will likely never testify for prosecutors again, still wears a badge.

In a statement, Sarno said he directed Barbieri to investigate the issues The Republican identified. The same statement said City Solicitor Ed Pikula advised Barbieri to make no comment on the matter.

Councilor Justin Hurst, pictured in 2013, has emerged as one of of the loudest advocates for a new police commission. (via Facebook/Justin Hurst campaign)

Councilor Justin Hurst, pictured in 2013, along with several colleagues of color, emerged as one of of the loudest advocates for changes in and accountability from the police department. (via Facebook/Justin Hurst campaign)

Meanwhile, the Council is likely to keep pushing. Having shown its teeth for the first time in years on employee residence and casino ethics, the body is not likely to be dissuaded on the police. Even if any ordinance passed cannot immediately go into effect, the Council could subpoena police officials and hold hearings to begin taking apart Pearl Street’s internal politics.

As the rank and file’s morale is already low, cops may not hesitate airing more grievances—whether in the press or in front of the Council—jeopardizing Sarno’s position further.

Make no mistake. With three years to another election and recall bloody unlikely, the risk is not to his seat, but of exposure to conditions that could allow something Sarno has long sought to avoid: losing control.

The knives are coming out…or rather the scalpels. Councilors, activists, patrolmen and even Barbieri may not be able to butcher Sarno, but they can make surgical excisions from the mass of power he has grown over nine years as mayor.