The Revolving Door at the Springfield City Clerk’s Office Spins Again…
Flux is returning to the Springfield City Clerk’s office after the current clerk, Tasheena Davis, tendered her resignation effective June 1. Mayor Domenic Sarno, in a press release, announced that Davis would return to her former employ, the city Law Department. More controversially, Sarno has announced an “appointment” to the position, a power that rests with the City Council only.
In 2019 following the resignation of City Clerk Anthony Wilson, Sarno announced he was appointing Davis, then a lawyer for the city. The Council rejected the intrusion on their authority, though welcomed her to apply. Davis’ qualifications won out, but not before a rollicking search process. The Council, its HR muscles flexed from selecting a new Ward 1 colleague, will initiate another open clerk application process. Sarno’s pick, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola, will be no less welcome to apply.
“I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to serve the City as City Clerk for the past two years,” Davis said in a statement the mayor’s office released. “I am looking forward to my continued service with the City as a 1st Associate Solicitor with the Law Department.”
Davis thanked the mayor, City Council and especially assistant city clerk Camile Nelson-Campbell who helped with the 2019 transition. The outgoing clerk also took pride in steering her office through the pandemic. As the city’s clerical and documentarian nerve center, this necessarily entailed working with myriad boards and commissions as they virtualized.
“I believe the City Clerk’s Office has successfully weathered this pandemic under my leadership and is properly positioned for more success as we return to normal times,” she said.
Davis’ short tenure as Clerk has had few other highlights. City Hall denizens have mixed, but not exactly zealous opinions about her administration in the office. This is not atypical for a relatively low-profile office despite its importance. However, an open Zoom mic incident during last budget season became a flashpoint in an otherwise quiet 20-odd months.
The next order of business will be selecting Davis’ replacement. Under Springfield’s city charter, the clerk serves a six-year term. The current term run through next January, but the incumbent clerk remains in place until the Council selects a replacement. In Springfield, the City Council has the exclusive power to appoint the clerk. While independent in practice, the Council oversees the Clerk, who in turn runs the office. The mayor has funding prerogatives as with any city organ.
The history of clerk appointments in Springfield is complex, though contested or competitive “races” for clerk have been rare. Nevertheless, the decision was always in the Council’s hands until Sarno tried to claim otherwise.
In 2015, when Sarno “appointed” assistant city solicitor Anthony Wilson, councilors accepted the recommendation. This was largely because of the deep trust he among members as counsel to the City Council. There was a subtext, too. Wilson had accepted a job outside city government. Councilors privately admitted the promotion was a good way to keep him.
When Wilson moved on, councilors considered a similar solicitation to Davis, also a former counsel to the Council. However, she was not leaving city service nor expressed interest to councilors until Sarno announced her appointment. Sarno would later claim that residual changes to the charter after the Control Board left gave him the appointment power. The Council rejected this and then-Council President Justin Hurst appointed a search committee.
The same is set to happen again.
“I’ll certainly treat a nomination from the mayor as a recommendation because the authority to appoint the next city clerk lies within the City Council’s domain,” Council President Marcus Williams said.
In an interview, Williams said he is appointing Councilors Melvin Edwards, Michael Fenton and Victor Davila to a selection committee. It will solicit applications and forward finalists to the full Council. Fenton will chair it.
“It is going to be a fully transparent process that will invite member of the public to apply,” Williams said.
Williams declined to comment on Sarno’s choice of Oyola.
Another odd element of Sarno’s press release was his plan to elevate the Clerk to cabinet level and put the Election Commission and 311, a resident helpline, under the Clerk. As a subordinate to the Council—and, nominally, otherwise outside any political process or purview—the mayor’s cabinet would be an odd place for the Clerk. Moreover, councilors have insisted, both privately and publicly, that Clerk candidates know their office reports to the Council.
In theory, putting the Election Commission formally under the Clerk is awkward, if not impossible. In smaller communities, clerks run elections. Springfield’s Registrar of Voters was abolished decades ago in favor of a Board of Election Commissioners—shorthanded as the Election Commission. All election authority moved out of the Clerk’s office, and indeed all other city offices, to the commission. The Council retains authority over polling places and hours.
Still, structural guidance from city ordinance is spare. Oyola runs the commission day-to-day. However, administrative support comes from the Clerk’s office even though the mayor directly appoints election commissioners. Indeed, Oyola carries the title of deputy city clerk.
“Having worked in state and municipal government for the past 25 years has been rewarding, and has allowed me the opportunity to make an impact on the city I love,” Oyola said in the mayor’s release. Both she and the mayor called the move to the Clerk’s office a natural progression. If the Council ultimately selects her, Oyola would be the first Latina to be City Clerk.
As for Davis, Sarno welcomed her back to the Law Department in a seemingly tacit acknowledgment she had not sprinted for the job originally.
“As she stated to me, her first love is the practice of law and City Solicitor Ed Pikula is excited to have her back,” Sarno said.
Despite varied opinions about Davis’ clerkdom, her legal acumen is not in dispute. Consequently, Williams’s appreciation for her service mirrors feelings from across the Council and throughout 36 Court Street.
“I wish Attorney Davis well in her next capacity,” he said. “She was a great resource when we needed someone for legal matters and opinions. We’ll have a familiar face there [in the Law Department] again.”