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A Mayor Called Sue(d): SJC Finds Springfield Police Panel Valid, Rejects Mayoral Omnipotence…


The SJC put Mayor Sarno in his place. (via Suffolk U/SJC)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court effectively settled a lingering question. Who really has the power in the government of the city of Springfield? The seven justices of the commonwealth’s highest court clearly, decisively and unanimously found the City Council has power. The mayor must share.

Just over five years ago, the City Council passed an ordinance reviving the Police Commission over Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto. Rather than concede that the law now commanded him to appoint the panel, he insisted the ordinance was invalid. Despite a revised Police Commission ordinance and a new police commissioner—which, pursuant to the Control Board, had replaced the Commission—nothing changed. Then in 2020, the Council finally filed suit, culminating in the SJC’s ruling on Tuesday.

“The city council claims, and the motion judge held, that the 2018 ordinance was clearly within the scope of its power to ‘reorganize’ municipal departments,” the justices wrote. “We agree.”

The Court had not exactly greeted arguments from the mayor’s warmly in December. As Flannery had done early last year, some justices said nothing during oral arguments. That was ultimately a bad sign for Hizzoner.

Councilors past and present from Vice-president Jesse Lederman to Councilor-turned-State Rep Orlando Ramos feted the ruling. City Council President Marcus Williams called it a “historic” day for the Council and the community.

“This rendering reconfirms the legislative authority to pass laws, reorganize and restructure the police department and more significantly, it equips the city with another tool for true police reform,” Williams said in a statement. “The focus is now on implementation so that diverse individuals on this commission are empowered to make informed decisions by bringing their own respective experience to the Table.”

Williams also recognized colleagues, legislators and community leaders for their support. He specially thanked Northampton attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo, who represented the Council pro bono in the case.

In a statement, the attorneys emphasized that the outcome was apparent all along. They urged the mayor to follow the ruling.

“The Court recognized that the overseeing of a police department is important in general in these times, but it is particularly important in Springfield, where there had been multiple instances of police misconduct, many of which were laid out in a recent Department of Justice investigation,” Aleo and Lesser said in the statement.

Thomas Lesser and Springfield City Councilors

Attorneys Lesser (at podium) and Aleo (peaking over Lesser’s should) with councilors in 2020. (WMP&I)

“It is time for the Mayor to abide by the law and appoint a new five-person police commission without delay, as ordered by the Superior Court,” they continued.

The mayor had hired a Worcester law firm to represent him as the city Law Department had been conflicted out.

Immediately after the ruling, WAMC reported that the mayor said he respected the decision. Initially, he had no further comment while his legal team reviewed the ruling. Several hours later, he indicated that he would appoint the commission, whose formal name is the Board of Police Commissioners.

The ruling has implications beyond the Commission, however. It settles once and for all that the Council can control, through ordinance, the structure of city government. Cities with Plan A charters under state law—versus more uniquely written home rule amendment charters—have the same scope to govern city organs as most Massachusetts city councils.

Still, as Hampden County Superior Court Judge Francis Flannery had last year ruling for the Springfield City Council, the SJC noted the context of the ordinance. The Police Commission ordinance came amid pushes for local and national police reform. This context underscores that Massachusetts jurists understand the importance of councilors responding to the wishes of voters.

Voters in Springfield have repeatedly returned to office those councilors who sought police oversight with teeth.

All along, Sarno had argued that the Council was impinging upon his (largely undisputed) appointment powers. However, the mayor believed this included not only who leads departments or sits on commissions, but what the structure of leadership would be.

Justice Scott Kafka, writing for the the Court, rejected this.

Adams Courthouse

The SJC’s home in Boston, the Adams Courthouse. The high court was no more interested in the mayor’s pretzeled reading of the law than Hampden Superior Court was. (via wikipedia)

“The mayor claims that, by interposing the civilian board of police commissioners, the city council is usurping his right as the chief executive officer to decide that the police force would be better administered with a single, professional commissioner who answers directly to him,” the justices wrote. “This, we conclude, is an important policy question, but not a separation of powers problem given the structure of the city charter.”

Judges can drone on, but this opinion is concise and clear. The SJC dismantled the mayor’s position. It noted that councilors’ right to “reorganize” city departments is apparent under a plain reading of the charter. The Court also rejected the argument that because the mayor can contract with the department’s day-to-day leader, the Council loses.

In perhaps the rulings most technical part, the SJC observed that this statute does not provide the “sharp” conflict needed to fell the ordinance. It notes that this statute reasonably applies to Pearl Street’s day-to-day leader. The Council can nevertheless install an unpaid panel to oversee that person.

“There is nothing in this statute that precludes the city council from reorganizing the police department to have either a single commissioner or a multiperson police commission,” the justices wrote.

The only question is who can appoint that day-to-day leader. The Court abstained from answering that question as attorneys had not briefed the justices on it. Yet, the SJC telegraphed skepticism about the mayor reaching around a Police Commission when he unilaterally appoints it anyway.

Later in the day, Sarno issued a statement in which he asserted the ruling “did nothing at all to diminish in any way my authority as Mayor to appoint and determine the responsibilities of that individual who is charged with the management and operation of the Springfield Police Department.”

Domenic Sarno

“I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Domenic Sarno, still living the dream. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

“I will continue to exercise that responsibility,” he insisted.

Other Police Department ordinances would appear to give the Commission this power.  However, the answer to this question could arise in other litigation. If, as the mayor now concedes, the Police Commission control hiring, firing and discipline, then actions the current sole Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood has undertaken are now in doubt.

Pending cases could force a resolution about who appoints the day-to-day leader. Whether that person is themselves under civil service or a contract is among considerations councilors will debate later.

For now, Clapprood is not going anywhere. Her contract runs through 2024. Neither the ordinance nor the SJC ruling should disrupt that, except regarding the scope of her responsibilities. Some now return to the Police Commission. WWLP reported that Clapprood intends to remain in her position, matching Sarno’s announcement to the same.

The mayor not have fully abandoned his measuring contest, but he is now fighting on different grounds than before. A panel of citizens shall now oversee the Police Department. The Council is certain to revisit the ordinance to more carefully sculpt the Commission’s setup and support staffing.

The SJC’s ruling over who controls the face of municipal administration has broad implications. Communities with charters that share the language in Springfield’s charter now have a conclusive statement about where the power lies.

City council have a clear role in organizing city government and setting policy such organizations and reorganizations entail. Certain state laws may speak to specific functions, but the SJC has reaffirmed the powers and prerogatives of municipal legislatures across Massachusetts.