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Analysis: Oops, He Did It Again…Sarno Still Defying Law on Police Commission…

Domenic Sarno

Oops he did it again, He Played with the Law… (created via Spfld City Hall images & Still via Sony Music)

It was just a line in The Republican’s election profile of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, but it was a reminder of one of his longest-running falsities. Despite stonewalling a duly-passed ordinance and a unanimous Supreme Judicial Court upholding the Police Commission, Sarno still “maintains the court order gave the commission power only over discipline, and not as an overall supervisory body.”

One can skim the decision, appropriately titled City Council of Springfield v. Mayor of Springfield, and find no such judicial statement. And with that he continues the same groundless and unilateral revision of law he employed while refusing to implement the Police Commission ordinance. In defending himself on the stump, the only person Sarno can quote to support his position is himself.

“The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision 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,” he said in a statement the day the SJC ruled last year. “I will continue to exercise that responsibility.”

In other words, he will continue to exercise a responsibility nobody gave him and lacking a basis in law.

Neither the mayor’s office nor his campaign responded to a request for an explanation for his position on the Commission.

Sarno faces therapist David Ciampi, City Councilor Justin Hurst, Council President Jesse Lederman and State Rep Orlando Ramos in the September 12 preliminary. As the mayor tumbles toward the preliminary, limbs flailing but armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars, his defense of his record has had a tenuous relationship with reality.

Sarno has claimed Springfield was bankrupt when became mayor. In fact, the Control Board had righted the ship and let him run point on the budget that year. He accused his opponents of voting to defund the police by $1 million. Sarno actually supported $125,000 of that cut and $800,000 related to real estate deal between the city and Sarno contributors. He calls a bill that would only let the commonwealth appeal low bail a “legislative plan.”

Springfield Mayoral Debate

It’s one thing to spin or misrepresent your mayoral opponents’ records. Inventing law is another. (WMP&I)

But these are degrees of spin and political rhetoric, babies an exhausted public must split.

The Police Commission ordinance is far different. It is a law and the current mayor of Springfield refuses to follow it. Instead, he serially ignores it and even defends the violation—without evidence—while running for reelection. As it is, he never even acknowledged the ordinance’s validity until the Council obtained pro bono counsel, won in Superior Court and beat back his appeal to the highest court in the commonwealth. (The body cannot appropriate funds for its own lawyer).

Moreover, no state official ever acted to stop him, before the SJC ruling or since.

Needless to say, the Police Commission has had a rocky start. Its struggles took center stage during this year’s budget debate. Councilors remain at loggerheads with the mayor about staffing the commission. The administration claims that staff the Law and Police departments lend is sufficient. The Council wants the separate staff who report to the Commission.

But this does not reach the fundamental problem that the Commission has been subordinated to a mere complaint board. The ordinance envisions more. This is where the rubber hits Sarno’s fantasy road.

The ordinance states that the Commission shall create broad rules for the department, but also manage hiring, firing and promotion. The chief—or superintendent as Cheryl Clapprood’s title is now—handles day-to-day issues, including overtime, payroll, and assignment of duties.

The Commission—formally the Board of Police Commissioners—shall “have the appointment, management and control of the members and employees of the Police Department” the ordinance states. Elsewhere in ordinance, it assigns appointment powers to the Commission.

To the extent that any public explanation for Sarno ignoring the ordinance (again), he appears to be referring to the SJC recognizing that the Council divided responsibilities.

“Under this structure, the board performs an oversight function for the department but not a daily managerial function as would be performed by a police chief,” the Court wrote.

That, apparently, gave rise to mayor’s claim immediately after the decision that, the parts of the ordinance granting the Commission hiring and promotion powers, among others, were invalid.

Adams Courthouse

The Adams Courthouse, seat of the SJC. The commonwealth’s highest court rejected Sarno’s premise in its entirety. He pretends otherwise. (WMP&I)

“The day-to-day duties concerning the operation of the police department, including ‘command and control’ of all department members, professional standards, as well as hiring, promotions, and as well as assignments, will continue to be performed by a full-time police professional, Cheryl Clapprood,” his February 2022 statement said.

This is nonsense. The SJC decision makes numerous references to the Council’s ability to decide what the commission and the chief’s duties are. If anything, the SJC the division of labor in government and elected officials’ response to calls for police reform.

“The result provides some checks and balances regarding control over the police department. It also recognizes that both the mayor and the city council are answerable to the voters of Springfield for the performance of the police department,” the court wrote.

Nor does the SJC ever say the mayor can define what day-to-day responsibilities are in contravention of ordinance. In fact, city ordinance makes clear that functions like payroll are the chief’s job, consistent with the SJC’s ruling.

So why does this matter?

Domenic Sarno oops

He drives us crazy, too. (created via Springfield City Hall images & still via YouTube/Sony Music)

Well, he is running as the mayor who really cares, but the SJC told him he must be the mayor who really shares—power that is.

It is great if the city has reached benchmarks in its consent decree with the US Department of Justice. The DOJ had held that the form of police oversight was less important to them than the reforms. Moreover, the Commission was not supposed to be mere reincarnation of its former self, but a new platform for accountability.

That is why both the community and the patrolmen union have historically supported its return. The issues transcend some public process. The community wants more transparency to be sure no fix is in. The cops themselves battle against the unfair advantages politically connected colleagues abuse.

The caprice and lawlessness of Sarno’s reign is itself an understated issue in this campaign. It is one he will not explain to media when asked and one that is difficult, if not impossible, for his rivals to attack. Councilors or former councilors hear they could sue Hizzoner again, which is true however onerous. Of course, the point is they shouldn’t have to litigate.

The cost does not stop at the police. How can any prospective business owner or large company have faith in a process when the police governing structures exist in a black box? Meanwhile, only body counts can penetrate traffic infrastructure status quo and outlandish development proposals secure the mayoral ear and his devotion.

Whether Sarno wins reelection in November—he remains a huge favorite to survive the preliminary—this will be a thing Springfield and the commonwealth must confront. The state cannot brook such behavior and expect residents to take seriously the desire to have all of Massachusetts succeed.

But in the meantime, the facts must remain clear. Neither the ordinance, nor the charter, nor the SJC have said that the mayor has this kind of unilateral power. Sarno did this back when the Council passed the ordinance over his veto and he is doing it again. Only this time he claims his power is sent from above.

That’s so typically Sarno.