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Take My Council, Please: A Green Akers Reboot, but As Legislative Drama…


What zany adventures do they have planned for next week? (WMP&I and Google images)

Ahead of the ascendence of Deputy Chief Lawrence Akers to Police Superintendent, the Springfield City Council considered a batch of legislation in an odd Tuesday meeting to smooth things over. Despite an extended debate on a home rule petition allowing Akers to serve beyond age 65, it passed easily. By contrast, substantial changes to police leadership ordinances yielded a fractious, heated and, at times, bizarre debate.

When Mayor Domenic Sarno named Akers, 64, to succeed Cheryl Clapprood, everyone knew he would need an age waiver from the legislature. It was hardly obvious that revisions to the Police Commission ordinance would follow. If enacted, these would codify what Sarno imposed after losing at the Supreme Judicial Court, in defiance of the plain text of the ordinance. Critics suggested this would effectively gut central, if heretofore unrealized, powers of the resurrected Commission.

Councilor Malo Brown and Jose Delgado were absent Tuesday. Councilors Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield attended virtually. Akers was present as well.

The Council’s attorney, former Councilor Ken Shea, insisted the ordinance was just maintaining the status quo.

“This item is designed to give the new commissioner the same authority and powers that the current commissioner has,” he told councilors.

If true, it effectively means the mayor’s implementation of the ordinance since the SJC ruling had been wrong all along.

Pertinently, the bill formally allows the mayor the power to appoint the superintendent. Nobody raised this Tuesday, but it too is an admission the mayor did not have that power.

A climate of mistrust hovered over the debate. Many councilors condemned the rush. It doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Council President Michael Fenton announced Tuesday night the next meeting would be March 11. Since then, however, a pair of special meetings with the ordinances have appeared on the city calendar. A Public Safety Committee meeting will occur Monday.

Ken Shea

Ken Shea circa 2021. Not pictured, mute button. (via Facebook/former campaign)

An additional complication may be the advice councilors were receiving. Shea, who attended virtually, was caught on a hot mic saying, “I mean I don’t know where the votes are on this thing.” It was not clear to whom he was speaking. Fenton ordered Shea to mute himself.

Toward the end of the meeting, Whitfield, an at-large councilor, claimed to have heard Shea’s phone announce a call from Tom Ashe, the mayor’s chief of staff. Other councilors and viewers confirmed her allegation. WMP&I has not independently identified that soundbite as of posting time.

Shea did not respond to a request for comment.

It is virtually impossible to throw a rock in Springfield and not hit somebody praising Sarno’s choice of Akers as superintendent. A Pearl Street lifer with a good reputation, he would also be the department’s first Black leader.

Opponents of the legislative changes to the Police Commissioner ordinance insisted their objection was not about Akers. Rather, it was about future police leaders and community input.

“This is about the position because deputy chief Akers will not be the superintendent forever,” Whitfield said. She blasted the “sneaky tactics” used to wrest power away from the Commission before now and argued the ordinance should not change to legitimize such moves.

Whitfield also cited the consent decree with the United States Department of Justice, which requires the city to involve residents when major policy changes occur. Whether this extends to ordinances is uncertain. The DOJ had not responded to a request for comment as of posting time.

The situation echoes a mayoral attempt to repeal the ordinance in 2019. At the time, the mayor pushed to re-repeal the Commission and codify a nonbinding complaint hearing board he said was sufficient. The impetus for the push was false. The mayor wanted his board to have subpoena power. However, the Commission he was refusing to appoint had and still has subpoena authority by operation of state law.

The long, now-sordid legislative history of the current Police Commission ordinance dates to 2016. It essentially reversed the Control Board’s abolition of the body and resurrected the five-member Police Commission. That panel had hiring, promotion and most discipline authority including termination. It also writes rules and sets policy. The ordinance abolished the Control Board’s sole commissioner and reinstituted a chief who ran the Pearl Street day-to-day.

The mayor ignored the ordinance, passed over his veto amid the Bigda revelations. Sarno claimed, with zero authority, that he controlled the structure of city boards, not only who served on them. Councilors could do little more than pound sand until they secured pro bono counsel in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. They won in Hampden Superior Court and before a unanimous SJC.

Adams Courthouse

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to Sarno: LOL! (WMP&I)

Sarno refused to take the L. He appointed the Commission, but confined its power to discipline. The mayor restyled Clapprood as superintendent, who retained hiring, promotion and rule-making powers. It later became public that police commissioners signed memoranda of understanding ceding all but discipline power to the superintendent.

Until Tuesday, there was no indication that Akers taking over for Clapprood would alter the situation.

Shea, the Council’s attorney, repeatedly asserted that the changes were necessary to ensure Akers would have all the power Clapprood enjoyed. He did not explain what was changing in the handoff between the two that required these ordinances.

The two pieces of legislation before the Council were hastily drafted. They lack enacting language that clearly state what in the current code of ordinances would get the heave-ho and where the new language should go. A court would likely interpret them as repealing and replacing the identified sections of the city code.

Springfield Police Commission Ordinance Amendment

Current Text in Black.
First Ordinance Proposed Text in Red. (WMP&I via Springfield City Hall)

The first ordinance contains the most changes. The least controversial element is formally retitling the day-to-day leader as a superintendent. The bill makes clear the superintendent can exercise any powers afforded to the chief or the now-defunct commissioner in ordinance.

More likely to invite criticism is the bill officially letting the mayor appoint the superintendent. While the mayor ignored swaths of the ordinance after the SJC ruling, on appointing the chief (later superintendent) the high court actually did hedged. It implied the City Council could let the Commission appoint the chief—or whatever day-to-day leader. Yet, the court declined to say so affirmatively. Clapprood was already there anyway, but most of the councilors who passed the ordinance expected the Commission to pick the chief.

The next change is also controversial. It formally gives the superintendent the hiring, promotion, policymaking and regulation authority the Commission otherwise has.

Springfield Police Commission Ordinance Proposed Amendment

Current Text in Black.
Second Ordinance Proposed Text in Red. (WMP&I via Springfield City Hall)

The second ordinance limits the Commission to meting out discipline.

Supporters argued that this should be an easy vote since everybody wanted Akers anyway. The implication is that Akers’s appointment hangs in the balance.

“I’m not understanding exactly what the holdup is,” said Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen. “The people involved like each other, agree on what the roles are. The role is the same as it was the superintendent.”

Rather, several councilors, namely Whitfield, Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila and Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan expressed grave concerns about formally removing these powers from the commission. Other observers have critiqued the removal of the Commission’s regulatory powers, too.

The ordinances put the administration in a strange position. If the mayor acted properly in stripping the commission of powers plainly granted in the ordinance, then there is no need to change the ordinance. Sarno approving this ordinance would be an implicit admission that his earlier actions were lawless. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Council faces two problems. The first is credibility. Although councilors long believed the ordinance would change, that would only be through negotiations. The mayor’s unilateralism before, during and after the litigation essentially foreclosed this. Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez panned how nothing happened until Akers’s ascension.

“I feel that this should have been taken way before we are here,” she said, referencing a new police leader who reflects the city’s diversity.

Perez’s complaint was significant, although she generally supported the changes.

“We need to send this to committee,” Govan said, concurring. “We should have been talking about this last year when the Board of Police Commission came on.”

An initial effort to refer both ordinances to committee failed. Councilors Davila, Govan, Whitfield, Lavar Click-Bruce and Melvin Edwards supported the referral. The first ordinance, which specifically revised the superintendent’s title and powers, passed first step 8-3. Davila, Govan and Whitfield were in dissent.

Davila again pushed to refer the second ordinance to committee. This push was more successful. It moving to committee on a 10-1 vote with only Fenton in dissent. Click-Bruce, the Public Safety Chair, said he agreed with the need for transparency and was open to amendments.

“Some things that were said tonight definitely ring true,” he said. “I’m all about transparency especially on a topic of this nature and this magnitude.”

Tracye Whitfield

Whitfield in December. She emphasized that more than Akers’s superintendency was at stake. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

As the second ordinance went to the Public Safety Committee, it will require two separate votes at separate meetings to become law. With meetings scheduled next week, this may be a short reprieve.

Councilors were at pains to say this was not about Akers. Davila and Whitfield both suggested some kind of power-sharing, perhaps evoking negotiations that never happened.

As if to evidence that Akers was not the problem, the home rule petition to waive the state age passed unanimously.

During that discussion, Govan asked whether Akers lives in Springfield. Akers confirmed he does not. He attributed his decision to move—he now lives in Palmer—to what he thought was imminent retirement. He and his wife were looking at homes in the city. Akers became subject to the residency ordinance upon his deputy chief promotion last April. He would need to retire or move to the city within a year anyway.

A closer date is Clapprood’s last dance as superintendent. In an Op-Ed Masslive and The Republican published, Clapprood discussed her retirement. She will waltz out of Pearl Street on April 9. Clapprood would have face the retirement stage cane anyway when she turns 65 in May.

Sarno Akers

Maybe Akers and Sarno need to spend less time holding hands and more time discussing state retirement law. (via Springfield City Hall)

This naturally makes the home rule petition more urgent—and explains the hard sell on the ordinances. Akers would reasonably not accept the gig if state law would boot him in December.

The proposed language was not without its own controversy. Despite ostensibly exempting Akers from the age cap, its title refers to state employee retirement law. Other language, Councilor Davila said, would prevent Akers from counting his superintendent pay toward his retirement pay.

At-large councilor Sean Curran insisted the legislation was only about Akers’s age, the petition’s plain text notwithstanding. Curran’s incorrect but firm assertions prompted a few tense exchanges with Davila.

This surprised Akers. However, he greenlit the Council advancing the petition while he looked into it. The body approved the petition unanimously. As of posting time, it was not clear if the mayor had signed it and sent it to the legislature.