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Take My Council, Please: The (Off-)Center of Power Holds on Police Commission…

Springfield City Council

State-local crossover episode? (created with WMP&I images)

SPRINGFIELD—Mayor Domenic Sarno and the City Council averted a political crisis Monday by agreeing to sunset what now amounts to suspensions of key parts of the Police Commission ordinance. The change ostensibly arose to ensure Deputy Police Chief Lawrence Akers, who would be the city’s first Black police leader, will have the same powers his four predecessors had.

However, the pair of ordinances, which reallocate most of the Police Commission’s power other than to mete out discipline, prompted sharp pushback. Legislators, including some who as councilors had voted for the Commission, joined residents and current councilors to resist a permanent gutting of Police Commission powers, if unrealized, which the Supreme Judicial Court upheld in 2022.

Councilors Sean Curran and Brian Santaniello attended the meeting virtually. All other councilors attended in person.

Last Tuesday, councilors considered three items that supporters billed as necessary for Akers’s ascension. While the home-rule petition in that package was semi-uncontroversial, the ordinances immediately attracted loud objections.

In their original form, the two ordinances permanently transferred hiring, promotions and rule-making from the Commission to the superintendent. It clearly restyles the city’s day-to-day police leader as a superintendent whom the mayor would appoint. Many supporters of the Police Commission believe these powers are central to the decade-long push to revive the panel.

Twisting councilors’ arms was the general adulation Akers had attracted. However, several councilors’ misgivings last week proved more influential than it initially appeared. Adding to the firepower was the public and forceful dissent from State Rep Carlos Gonzalez and Orlando Ramos and Senator Adam Gomez.

Gomez and Ramos were on the Council when it revived the Commission in the aftermath of the Gregg Bigda video. Gonzalez brought a chart to show the steps this whole process went through. It was Gomez, however, who tipped his hand about the leverage they all had: the home-rule petition.

Adam Gomez

For Gomez, a council alum, some senatorial privilege. (via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“We can’t go to revisit. We need to go to revert, if you want any type of compromise. Because it takes one vote to object in the House,” he said during public speak-out. “Nobody has talked to me and I’m the senator for this city.”

Gomez later clarified one objection can stop an item during informal session. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine a home-rule petition passing over the objection of a community’s senior senator.

On the one hand, the Council still legitimated the mayor’s lawless behavior. Before these ordinances, he had lawlessly denied the Police Commission its hiring, promotion and rule-making power via dubious memoranda of understanding. On the other hand, the Council pushed through—and Sarno said he would support—limiting this change to Akers alone.

Before public speak-out, it was still not clear reversion would happen. Ward 5 Councilor Lavar Click-Bruce, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, held a hearing immediately before. Mayor Domenic Sarno made a rare appearance before a committee to press hard for Akers. He asserted he just wanted to let Akers have the same powers his four predecessors had.

Sarno spent little time directly addressing opponents’ complaints with the changes. He focused on improvements in diversity at Pearl Street. While Sarno sunset agreed to a sunset, he did not say what kind. Click-Bruce, announcing plans for an amendment on the floor, only mentioned language requiring the Council to revisit the changes in the ordinance.

Springfield City Council Public Safety Committee

Mayor Sarno and Deputy Chief Akers at the Council’s Public Safety Committee ensuring the safety of the ordinances.

This was a red line for the legislators, who addressed the full Council before its meeting began.

“If you are going to come back to this game of politics and revisit this when Superintendent Akers decides to move on, you have no blessings from me,” Gonzalez said. “If you sunset when he leaves and it just goes back to the police commission, you have my 150% support.”

Consequently, Click-Bruce instead proposed an amendment to “revert” the ordinance to its prior form once Akers left municipal service.

Sarno and Akers both addressed the Council after speak-out but before consideration of the items. Neither telegraphed any opposition to a reverting sunset clause.

That appeared to settle the matter and pave the way for passage. The sunset clause passed for the first ordinance—which mostly related to the superintendent—on a 10-3 vote. Councilors Victor Davila, Jose Delgado and Zaida Govan were in dissent.

Govan questioned whether the position even needed to change to superintendent. When the Police Commission ordinance originally became law, it abolished the sole Police Commissioner the Control Board had installed. Simultaneously, it resurrected the position of chief. When the SJC ruled against the mayor, he restyled the sole commissioner Cheryl Clapprood as superintendent rather than chief.

It is not clear whether the title truly matters. City Solicitor John Payne initially said dropping the term “superintendent” creates problems with the consent decree with the US Department of Justice.

At this point the mayor, who had remained in the chamber until the end, began chatting audibly with Clapprood about civil service. The mayor then spoke to Payne. The solicitor, in turn, relayed concerns that calling it a chief would throw the position to civil service. This would require exams, opening the possibility of somebody other than Akers scoring higher.

It is not apparent that the formal title for the top cop is sufficient to place the position inside or outside civil service. Nevertheless, it was enough to end that debate.

Tracye Whitfield

Whitfield at Monday’s Council meeting, She moved to prevent MOUs from being MIA from Council scrutiny.. (WMP&I)

“As much as I hate to do this, I’m going to agree with Judge Payne,” Whitfield said, using Payne’s former job as a jurist.

The first ordinance passed 11-2. Only Davila and Delgado were in dissent.

During the first ordinance debate, Whitfield had raised the memoranda of understanding individual members of the Police Commissioners had signed upon appointment. While those documents’ legal import is dubious, in them, commissioners ceded the hiring, promotion and rule-making powers to Clapprood. She had exercised them—and disciplinary authority—before the SJC ruling.

Whitfield’s amendment requires any MOU come before the Council, essentially, for ratification.

“Now we have an opportunity to make sure nothing like that ever happens again and if we want something to change, that’s a way we can also do it,” Whitfield said. Officials could not sidestep city law makers administratively, she added.

At Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen’s suggestion, Whitfield withdrew her amendment to instead propose it on the next ordinance. Council President Michael Fenton cautioned that the revision may be too big a change to allow an immediate vote under open meeting law. He also suggested a charter issue. Sarno, again talking through the show, could be heard from his seat claiming this violated the charter, too.

The second ordinance, which requires another vote Tuesday anyway, may not have had the same open meeting problem. Whitfield’s amendment passed 8-5. Councilors Allen, Curran, Fenton, Santaniello and Kateri Walsh were in opposition. Click-Bruce’s sunset clause passed 11-2. Davila and Delgado were in dissent, but this time Govan joined the prevailing side.

The final vote on first step for the ordinance was 11-2 again with Davila and Delgado in dissent.

Victor Davila

Davila objected to much of the process. (WMP&I)

Davila had made his feelings clear during the meeting. He strongly objected to Sarno’s conflation of Akers’s qualification to lead Pearl Street with the need to gut the Police Commission ordinance.

“I’m getting a little ticked off that it’s being portrayed that way,” Davila said at one point.

Delgado, who was absent from last week’s meeting, like Davila, objected to the rush. Delgado supports Akers, but felt there was simply not enough information on offer about the ordinance or context and history of the Police Commission.

“I’m not against Deputy Chief Larry Akers. I think he’s gonna be a phenomenal superintendent,” Delgado said in an interview after the meeting. “But my thing is, I felt like this process was a little rushed and I felt like we needed more time.”

The legislators were reluctant to celebrate the cross into municipal politics too loudly. Still, Rep Gonzalez welcomed Akers appointment and that the ordinance was not permanently changed. He also praised the role the community took in applying pressure.

“I was happy to see that the response that came from the community, by phone calls, and also by their presence here today,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “That they supported the people over politics, that they supported the DOJ report and the Supreme Court and the fight that they fought for, to have a police commission that reflects their ideas, their thought process.”

Rep Gonzalez giving a history lesson on the Commission. (WMP&I)Gonzalez concurred with Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown’s observation that the Commission should receive resources to do their job. However, Gonzalez dismissed Brown’s suggestion that these resources could come from the state. It was for the municipal budget.

Senator Gomez downplayed the legislators’ role in the conclusion. He welcomed the deal, but acknowledged the importance the issue had, having voted for the Commission twice and for the lawsuit to enforce the ordinance.

“I will say that I’m satisfied to see that the body were able to negotiate a deal that makes everybody comfortable,” he said in an interview. “I am emotionally charged a little bit when it comes to that piece of policy, because we fought so long.”

However, Gomez added that Akers’s superintendency also buys time to assess the ordinance and build up the Commission to take over after he retires.

Although Sarno had prevailed in one sense, the sheer force of the pushback had moved the needle. A more conspiratorial view of this episode is that the mayor was cynically using Akers to kill as much of the Police Commission ordinance as possible. In that sense, the mayor failed.



The rule of law still took a hit, though. The SJC ruling was a seminal moment which recognized the Council’s right to reorganize city government. The mayor barreled through that ruling. His attempt to jam changes in ordinance is a tacit admission he had been wrong to ignore them. Yet, the Council did not force the mayor to simply present Akers to the Commission for appointment.

The law on the Council’s power remains clear. The political consequences of lawless behavior remain as muddy as ever.