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Take My Council, Please: Setting the Board for Commission Confrontation…

UPDATED 8:35PM: The Republican reports that Sarno has vetoed the ordinance. Tells paper on his flip-flop from 2007, “Quite frankly you learn that campaigning is much different than governing.”



SPRINGFIELD—Edging closer to its second major rebuke of Mayor Domenic Sarno this year, the City Council here voted to reestablish a civilian police commission to oversee the department. Sarno has promised a veto and insists the ordinance itself violates the charter all but setting the mayor and Council on a collision course in the weeks ahead.

Reviving the body, which was abolished by the Control Board, but has its roots in legislation from 1909, has been a perennial issue since ward representation returned in 2010. Previous attempts have faltered. This year, however, the Bigda case embroiling 36 Court Street and Pearl Street, has catapulted the issue into the legislative end zone.

Monday night, Council President Michael Fenton came armed with a new weapon, Sarno’s support for a Police Commission as a candidate in 2007.

“The mayor intends to veto this legislation on the basis of its legality,” the Ward 2 Councilor said. “If after vetoing this ordinance and this council overrides, I cannot fathom that the very act we take, consistent with his statements is illegal and inconsistent from the city charter.”

The 2016-2017 City Council. (WMassP&I)

The 2016-2017 City Council. (WMassP&I)

Councilors approved the police commission ordinance, which does not take effect until 2019, on a 10-2 vote. Councilors Timothy Rooke and Ken Shea voted no. At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, an ally of Sarno’s on this issue in the past, was absent.

Much of the Council meeting, which immediately followed the annual tax rate-setting meeting Monday night, was dedicated to the Police Commission. All 12 of the present councilor spoke at some point offering remarks that ranged from emotional to resigned. For example Shea seemingly tried to temper supporters’ expectations.

“A lot of the comments bring out the fact that if we switch over a police commission that we’re going to reduce the cost of these lawsuits,” Shea said referring to police misconduct cases. “But please don’t do it on the basis that we’re going to save a lot of money and these suits will go away.”

Veterans Leading Council in Pledge of Allegiance (courtesy Council office)

Veterans Leading Council in Pledge of Allegiance (courtesy Council office)

Before the meeting began, the Council commemorated the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the attack, which launched the United States’ involvement in World War II. Veterans were on hand to lead the Council in the Pledge of Allegiance before the meeting.

The rest of the meeting was fairly boilerplate grant acceptance and committee reports. Utility reports for Mobilitie, a cellular infrastructure company, remained in committee, although a report for Eversource was accepted.

Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, the chair of the ad hoc Young Professionals Committee said more work was needed on the food truck ordinance. Likewise Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, the Responsible Employer Ordinance chair, said his committee was also keeping changes in his committee.

At-large councilor Justin Hurst, the chair of the General Government Committee, informed the Council about a meeting provoked by concerns deputy chiefs in the police and fire departments were violating the residency ordinance. Hurst promised changes to the residency ordinance would be forthcoming.

Among the grants accepted were annual drunk driving police grants, health and senior grant. Sgt. Brian Elliott, the Police Department’s grants officer, explained one grant was a resubmission to comply with an executive order from the federal government.

Parks, Recreation and Buildings director Patrick Sullivan described a $400,000 grant to be used for open space near Mary Lynch School on North Branch Parkway. Sullivan said it would be dedicated to Alain Beauregard and Michael Schiavina, two Springfield police officers murdered in 1985.

The Council also made final changes to the animal control ordinance.

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri has been under fire over disciplinary issues at Pearl Street. (WMassP&I)

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri has been under fire over disciplinary issues at Pearl Street. (WMassP&I)

But much of the meeting centered on the Police Commission.

On November 14, the Council passed first step for the Police Commission ordinance. It would create a five-member commission appointed by the mayor. The commission would hire and discipline police, but also organize and set department policy. A chief under Civil Service—the current, sole Police Commissioner is presently outside state civil service—would manage day-to-day responsibilities.

State law limits the Council’s ability to implement these changes until Commissioner John Barbieri’s contract expires, hence the ordinance’s effective date in 2019.

Several cops were in the gallery, but none spoke. Though historically the patrolmen’s union has supported the Commission, it has not opined on the current debate.

Councilor Adam Gomez in January (WMassP&I)

Councilor Adam Gomez in January (WMassP&I)

Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez dismissed the mayor’s argument that the current system removed politics from Pearl Street. Riffing on his family’s relationship with the police—his mother served on the police commission and a cousin was a cop—he argued for civilian control in part because residents demanded it.

“We’re always going to have conflicting views,” he said, observing politics are inescapable.

Other councilors noted longstanding support for restructuring police oversight. Indeed, as Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos observed, the debate stretched back years. An attempt to revive in 2014 was cut off by Sarno’s appointment of Barbieri as commissioner.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, in charged remarks, invoked “rogue cops” nationwide and alluded to his unsuccessful 2011 effort to establish a civilian review board. Patrolmen opposed that initiative, however, as it merely codified Sarno’s civilian complaint review board and was not charged with reviewing internal complaints.

Allen, the Ward 7 councilor, said he was a latecomer to issue. “I had not seen enough to see that the current system is not working.” But now he believed the current reforms were a natural part of the Council’s responsibility for oversight, policymaking and financial stewardship.

Council President Michael Fenton ceded the podium to speak on the Commission ordinance. (WMassP&I)

Council President Michael Fenton ceded the podium to Vice-President Ramos to speak on the ordinance. (WMassP&I)

Virtually all speakers were at pains to assure their comments not be directly interpreted as anti-police or at least not anti-Springfield Police.

But it was Fenton’s excavation of Sarno’s prior position that cut across the emotion and tumult. Fenton produced part of Sarno’s 2007 position paper on crime that detailed then-Councilor Sarno’s disappointment in Pearl Street’s disengagement with the public after he Control Board’s dissolved the Police Commission.

“Since the changeover from a five-member citizen Board of Police Commissioner overseeing the police chief to a single police commissioner overseeing the department, the input from the community to the department and communication from the department to its citizenry have been greatly reduced,” Fenton said, reading from what he said was Sarno’s 2007 position.

As of posting time, WMassP&I could not independently authenticate the document, which Fenton made available to the press. The mayor’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2012. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2012. (WMassP&I)

Sarno did favor a police commission in 2007, however. A Reminder article from that year on candidate Sarno’s proposals to combat crime called a civilian review board “toothless” and promised a robust Police Commission. “The Police Commission would have teeth,” the weekly reported Sarno saying then.

In response to the current debate, Sarno has insisted that the current system insulates the department from politics and reflects a trend among police departments. The evidence of that is mixed.

The Law Department has also argued that the ordinance violates the city charter as it empowers the mayor to appoint all department heads and boards. However, it is not clear how a police chief would qualify as a department head under Massachusetts jurisprudence if the necessary supervisory power were vested in the Police Commission.



Sarno vetoed the ordinance Tuesday returning it to the Council for its next move.

Councilors can hold an override vote in seven days. A two-third votes is necessary to override the mayor at which point the issue may go to court to rule on the ordinance’s legality.