Browse By

Sarno Hits Back at WNEU Debate but Fails to School Mayoral Rivals…

Springfield Mayoral Debate

Choose your fighter. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—In what could be the full mayoral field’s last outing, the candidates to lead the City of Homes sparred over crime and economic development. Incumbent Domenic Sarno tried to swipe at his opponents, but faceplanted. Whether it changed the pace and direction of the race is anybody’s guess.

Following their tangle in Mason Square, Sarno, therapist David Ciampi, at-large Councilor Justin Hurst, Council President Jesse Lederman and State Rep Orlando Ramos battled on Focus Springfield at Western New England University. Although the format and short response times produced somewhat staccato exchanges, it also featured the mayor attempting to blast his opponents as much as they flamed him.

Former Reminder Executive Editor Mike Dobbs moderated the August 24 debate. The media panel included Sean Alvord the president of the WNEU student senate, Lauren LeBel the Reminder’s Springfield correspondent, Chris Pisano of Western Mass News and WAMC’s Paul Tuthill.

What to read into the mayor’s sniping is harder to discern. Was Sarno merely irritated that his opponents had the temerity to suggest his mayoralty has not a new golden age for Springfield? Or do his polls show softness in his numbers, or worse success in the challengers’ messaging.

Whatever the case, the mayor thought he could paint his three elected rivals as anti-police. Sarno invoked a 2020 vote Hurst, Lederman and then-Ward 8 Councilor Ramos took on the budget.

Domenic Sarno

Yes, waiter, I’ll have another term, please. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“I get a kick out of my colleagues State Representative Ramos and City Councilors Hurst and Lederman. In 2020 they defunded the police one million dollars overtime money and also the training that they’re going to do,” Sarno said.

Sarno said this while defending his police department record after Alvord asked about campus safety.

The mayor’s claim here fell somewhere between mendacious and misleading. The $1 million he referenced was actually two separate budget cuts.

Most of the first $200,000 was actually a policy the mayor had touted at the time following the murder of George Floyd. The mayor announced a $125,000 transfer of police overtime funds into the new Office of Racial Equity within Health & Human Services.  Because the new budget was not yet law, Sarno asked the Council to cut that amount. Then, he would reallocate it via a supplemental expenditure. The Council ultimately cut $200,000, hoping Sarno would transfer the extra $75,000 too. Councilors assured they would replenish overtime if the need arose.

The other $800,000 was to lease space for a police shooting range. There was no controversy about the Police Department having a range. The controversy was the lease’s terms. Due to the nature of municipal finance law, the cut did not halt the lease. It has changed since 2020, however.

Due to the way the candidates rotated the first answer to a question, only Ciampi would speak on that before a new question would go to the candidates. Responses could be no more than 60 seconds. That did not stop Lederman and Ramos from correcting the record.

Lederman, who spoke first on the following question—which concerned police recruitment—began the rejoinder.

Jesse Lederman

Lederman: I once had a lie this big told about my voting record. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“This is a great follow-up question to the answer that we just heard from Mayor Sarno,” he said. “The cut that was made in that budget was a redirection of overtime resources to training and was actually put on the agenda by mayor Sarno himself. Lederman characterized the transfer as a means to ensure cops “had the resources cultural competency and ability to interact and earn the trust of the public.”

As for the $800,000, Lederman called the lease illegal and something the mayor snuck into the budget. In any event, he alleged that the mayor had improperly written it into the facilities budget rather than the police budget.

Ramos, who spoke next, continued the flaying.

“The deal that the mayor made was $800,000 a year for 16 years for a building that the owner paid 750,000 for,” he said. “Now, you don’t need to be a math major to know that that math doesn’t add up and so we did that to protect the taxpayers of the City of Springfield.”

Both Lederman and Ramos observed that the owners are regular campaign contributors of Sarno’s.

Sarno did not address Lederman and Ramos’ points and instead focused on recruitment. Hurst took the opportunity to call for a police leader that lives in the city. (Police Superintendent has a Springfield address, but her critics believe she lives in Wilbraham).

This was not the only canned attack Sarno had, although the second one was a bit odd. Hurst has backed of fare-free transit and there was a question on improving transit in the city. However, his answer at the debate never called for the abolition of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority fares. He emphasized affordability. Ramos did suggest some lines could be free, but the point did not seem expansive. Lederman focused more on reliability and frequency of the service.

Nonetheless, Sarno apparently heard differently and fired a critique with no clear target.


An uncredited cameo? (via wikipedia)

“It must be sustainable, quantifiable, and structured,” he said of transit improvements,” the mayor began. “But you just can’t make everything free, free, free because at the bottom line you’re going to have to pay the piper down the road.”

Beyond these encounters, the debate touched on several hot-button Springfield issues and others from the prior debate. The candidates split on the abolition of the trash fee. Both Ciampi and Lederman said they would only consider it if finances would allow it. Hurst and Ramos insisted it could go now. Sarno, who had campaigned against the fee in 2007 against then-Mayor Charles Ryan, said it should stay.

Flip-flops aside, Sarno’s defense of the fee on the merits was sound and his fiscal stewardship has not been poor. Yet, he claimed at WNEU and elsewhere that the city was at the “brink of bankruptcy” when he became mayor. In fact, when Sarno took office in 2008, the Finance Control Board had already stabilized the budget. It even allowed the mayor’s office to take the lead on the budget that year.

On housing, the candidates pointed to several proposals of theirs while the mayor mostly defended his record on the subject.

Indeed, Sarno seemed by turned energetic and frustrated at the suggestion housing construction has been poor.

“Within the next two or three years we’ll have 600 more housing units on board and that’s across the board,” he said. The mayor listed many projects, mostly for market-rate units, that were underway or had opened during his reign.

Justin Hurst

Hurst has been building toward replacing the Building Commissioner. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

Repeating a line from the debate at Mt. Zion church, Hurst reiterated his call for a Building Commissioner who lives in Springfield. (The position is subject to the Residency Ordinance, but the current commissioner, Steven Desilets, is grandfathered in and does not live in the city).

“We can make sure we have a Building Department head who actually lives in the City of Springfield and understands the urgency of the housing needs here in the city,” he said. Accusing the department of lacking competency, Hurst added, “Unfortunately what’s happening right now is that you have developers that are waiting months in order to get permits.”

Hurst also suggested he would staff up the Law Department’s housing section to support code enforcement.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s building record not impress Lederman.

“We are 11,000 units short of housing in our region. Six hundred over the next three years is a drop in the bucket,” he said. Moreover, he critiqued the home ownership record. Lederman asserted that 50% of the city’s homes “have become owned by investors” or limited liability companies.

Lederman touted legislation he has introduced that would create a housing trust to aggregate state and federal resources to build more homes.

Orlando Ramos

The HDIP reference was one of clearest connections Ramos made to his rep tenure during the debate. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

In a similar vein, Ramos pointed to increases in the state Housing Development Incentive Program he supported in the House. The expansion has passed both houses, but thus far in separate legislative vehicles.

Another subject splitting the candidates was the location for a new Hampden County Courthouse. The state has identified potential locations, including a new building at the current site and other locations around downtown.

Obviously, all candidates want it to remain in Springfield. Lederman backed sites near the train station, which could incorporate a new police station. Hurst and Ramos prefer the state build a new courthouse on the current site. Sarno again backed the riverfront proposal that motor coach magnate Peter Picknelly is pushing.

The mayor’s opponents panned Picknelly’s proposal as a favor to a contributor. Sarno assured the location, in the shadow of an interstate highway interchange, would be, no surprise, “a gamechanger”—with parking!

However, not all of Sarno’s challengers were critics.

“I’m for riverfront development,” Ciampi said. However, he was not committing to that location alone. “I think that having a facility close to Union Station would also be a good game changer as well for the city.”