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Briefings: Council Preparing to Cross Court Square over Police Panel?…

The Council may finally have a means to defend its legislative prerogative in court. (created via wikipedia, Spfld City Hall & WMassP&I images)

After years of stalemate, movement on the Springfield Police Commission could be imminent. Fifteen years ago, the Finance Control Board discarded the body and concentrated its powers a sole police commissioner. Amid community distrust about internal oversight and a string of scandals at Pearl Street the City Council had revived the body over the objections of Mayor Domenic Sarno.

Sarno refused to implement the enacting ordinance, which essentially restored the old commission. He continued to operate as if the sole commissioner still existed in law. Without funds for a lawyer, the Council’s could not go to court to sue for implementation. However, a notice for a special Tuesday Council meeting includes an order to accept pro bono counsel to advise the body on this very matter.

The order, if approved, would allow the Northampton-based Law Office of Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser “to represent it in [the Council’s] dispute with the Mayor of the City of Springfield concerning the enforcement of the Ordinance that established the Board of Police Commissioners.” The order mentions the possibility of litigation, but a separate vote would be necessary to file suit.

The Board of Police Commissioners—the Police Commission’s formal name—dates back to a 1909 state law outlining governance of Springfield’s police force. The 1961 city charter the city transferred appointing powers to the mayor only—the Council originally had an appointing role too. Still, the buffer between the elected branches and the police remained.

The Control Board in 2007. (WMP&I)

The Control Board deemed this setup inadequate and created the sole commissioner model. Unlike the Police Commission, which consisted of civilians, the sole commissioner is a sworn officer. The position assumed the former police chief’s duties, but exists outside civil service. It is not clear whether the revival of the commission would place the chief back into civil service.

As a councilor, Sarno had supported the Commission, but changed his tune once he became mayor and the Control Board dissolved. Though Sarno has argued the civilian Commission is antiquated, he has claimed the enacting ordinance itself violates the charter and interferes with his power to appoint the department’s day-to-day leader. The ordinance grants all police appointments to the Commission.

Using its own authority, the Council passed the ordinance anyway. Early attempts fizzled after the mayor vetoed, but the Gregg Bigda scandal in 2016 produced the momentum to override Sarno. The Council streamlined the ordinance in 2018, again over the mayor’s veto, after the indictments of cops involved in the Nathan Bill’s fracas. Sarno ignored the law both times. An attempt to re-abolish the Commission and codify Sarno’s nonbinding oversight panel failed.

All throughout, the Council could not sue for enforcement. As a corporate body, it must have a lawyer in court. However, state law requires all appropriations to begin with the mayor. Even after Police Commissioner John Barbieri unceremoniously resigned, relieving the city of the complications of his contract, nothing changed.

The issue has taken on additional urgency amid the national protests against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Reviving the Commission is among local activists’ demands. Notably, the patrolmen’s union has historical supported the Commission, too.

The Northampton law firm’s representation would finally put the Council on equal footing with the mayor in this dispute. City lawyers for the Council all report to (and include) City Solicitor Ed Pikula, who serves at the mayor’s pleasure. With independent attorneys, the Council can then trade missives with the mayor as a legal adversary and not as a wayward organ of city government ignoring Law Department’s advice.

City Council preparing to visit the neighbors: Hampden Superior Court. (WMP&I)

Sources expect the order to pass easily. Even councilors who oppose the Commission’s return are believed to condemn the mayor’s unilateral abrogation of a duly-passed ordinance. After passage, councilor may enter executive session Tuesday to discuss the case with their new lawyers.

According to the order, Council President Justin Hurst would have the authority to execute an engagement letter with attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo. This will define the scope of their firm’s representation.