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Springfield CAFO Selection Picks up Speed This Week amid Other Top Departures…

T.J. Plante Springfield

Preparations for a post-Plante CAFO shift into high gear this week. (via Springfield City Hall)

Springfield faces a string of vacancies and turnover atop several city agencies. Just this month, the heads of the Elder Affairs, Police, School and Veterans Services departments have announced their retirements. Mayor Domenic Sarno has named some replacements, but more departures could lie ahead. One major office may have informally kicked off this transition last year, but it could see an appointment soon.

Last fall, Timothy Plante resigned as Chief Administrative & Financial Officer to go into the private sector. The state essentially imposed the position upon 36 Court Street at the close of the Control Board era. Alongside the job, lawmakers created a layered screening and appointment process that will hit a key point this week. A screening panel shall review and winnow the candidate pool to succeed Plante this week.

At a January 17 meeting, the panel scheduled interviews with CAFO candidates starting this Wednesday. The identity of the candidates is not public, although at least one works for the Town of Palmer. The committee also agreed to a list of questions and format for interviews.

The state statute, which functions as an addition to the city charter, requires the choice rest “solely on the basis of administrative and executive qualifications and shall be a person especially fitted by education, training and experience to perform the duties of the office.” If not already a Springfield resident, the CAFO must move into the city within a year of appointment.

When the legislature allowed the Finance Control Board to fold in 2009, it created the CAFO as a central authority to monitor city finances and manage officials with revenue and spending roles. The Control Board exit law also created an unusual selection process that involves various arms of city and state government.

Massachusetts State House

The CAFO position came into be when the legislature took the training wheels off Control Board out of Springfield (WMP&I)

The mayor appoints four members of the screening committee, although two must have experience in municipal management. The City Council, School Committee and state Secretary of Administration & Finance each select one. The mayor makes the ultimate choice and he can reject all of the screening committee’s suggestions. At that point, the committee reopens the search.

The current non-mayoral members are Ward 3 City Councilor Melvin Edwards, whom then-outgoing City Council President appointed, School Committee member Chris Collins and Zack Blake, whom Matt Gorzkowicz, the Secretary of Administration & Finance, named. Blake is the chief of the Finance Management Resource Bureau within the Division of Local Services.

Sarno appointed William Christofori, Jose Claudio, Haskell Kennedy and Margaret Lynch.

The weight of the setup gives the mayor considerable control over the CAFO appointment. Still, it also forces city councilors, the School Committee and the state to have more skin in the municipal management game in Springfield.

About 20 years ago, the state installed the Control Board to balance the books in the city. Springfield faced catastrophic layoffs while political sclerosis prevented less painful but controversial changes. The School Committee was at some remove from that crisis. Yet, some argue the City Council and the state failed to properly hold the administration to account in the preceding decade.

For the most part, the CAFO setup has worked. While councilors have clashed with Plante, generally it has been over policy choices outside his purview. Few, if any, questioned his or his predecessor Lee Erdmann’s execution of the actual powers of their office.

It has helped that Sarno has generally not tried to govern in a fiscally incontinent manner. Whether a legacy of his time as an aide to then-Mayor Mary Hurley, who faced a fiscal crisis, too, or his time as a councilor under the Control Board, fuzzy math and/or innumeracy have not polluted Sarno’s budgets.

Domenic Sarno 2020 Springfield

Yes, Plante loomed over Sarno’s budgets, but Sarno didn’t seem to mind or interfere with Plante’s looming. (WMP&I)

Nevertheless, the decisions made this week could carry longer-term consequences. The CAFO not only manages finances and key appointments, but serves as a major interface with interlocutors from local pols to bond lenders to state regulators.

One legacy Plante took pride in was the development of a professional fiscal corps that could seamlessly take over when he resigned. Sarno appointed Comptroller Patrick Burns as acting CAFO, a welcome choice.

Of course, the CAFO is not the only major staffing decision facing Sarno. On Monday, Springfield School Superintendent Daniel Warwick announced his retirement. Officially, Sarno is only one of seven votes on the School Committee that decides who shall lead city schools. Yet, as chair of the Committee he has additional influence. A major question will be whether the city reverts to historical precedent and appoints outside the city or promotes from within as it did with Warwick.

Daniel Warwick

Warwick just one of many top officials bidding adieu to city service. (via Springfield City Hall)

Yet, both the CAFO and Superintendent searches, which have statutory committee processes, are outliers. Indeed, most appointments are at the mayor’s discretion. However, the orbit upon which he relies has shifted as longtime allies have moved on or passed away. There remains perennial concerns about the influence city bugaboo Charlie Kingston has over the mayor. The ultimate choice of CAFO could also become a key advisor in this area. City Council President Michael Fenton may offer advice, too.

That said, some choices have already earned plaudits like choosing Lawrence Akers to replace Cheryl Clapprood as the city’s top cop. The successor to Elder Affairs Commissioner Sandy Federico, whose retirement was announced last week, will probably arise within the department or its parent agency Health & Human Services. That is what already happened with Veterans Services. Sarno named Deputy director Joseph DeCaro to succeed retiring director Tom Belton, pending Council confirmation.

Yet, rumors of further retirements, including long-serving and even bellowed department heads, were rampant during last year’s mayoral election. Still more and higher-profile appointments may lie ahead for Hizzoner.