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Briefings: City Council Ties up the Akers Loose Ends…Well, Maybe…

Lawrence Akers

Akers ready to rock…probably. (WMP&I)

The recent row over the nature and powers of the Springfield Police Commission and the superintendent of the Police Department has reached a conclusion for now. On Tuesday, the City Council made the final changes in ordinance, as part of a compromise with Mayor Domenic Sarno. It also passed a new home rule petition to the legislature that would let incoming superintendent Lawrence Akers serve to age 70.

The agreement between the Council and mayor grants Akers the same powers retiring police head Cheryl Clapprood has exercised. Unlike the original proposal, those changes will expire upon his retirement. The compromise arose amid major pushback from residents and state legislators whose support is essential for the home rule petition. The revised draft does not cap Akers’s pension, but it remains unclear if the legislature will approve the petition without that language.

Councilor Brian Santaniello was absent. Councilors Lavar Click-Bruce, Jose Delgado and Maria Perez, Kateri Walsh attended virtually.

The first ordinance, which officially restyles the top day-to-day cop as superintendent, lays out the Commissioner’s powers. This passed first step last week. Second step passed Monday with the sunset clause tied to Akers’s retirement. The second ordinance describes the Police Commission’s powers. It had gone to committee last week and only received first step on Monday. Final passage occurred Tuesday.

At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield successfully amended the second ordinance Monday to constrain memoranda of understanding. The members of the Commission had ceded their hiring, promotional and rule-making authority to Clapprood via MOU. The legality notwithstanding, this effectively limited the Commission’s purview to meting out discipline.

Whitfield’s amendment subjects such future MOUs to Council approval. She introduced a second amendment Tuesday to ensure the change survived the sunset clause tied to Akers’s service. The amendment also revised the Monday MOU amendment with more technical language.

The vote on the amendment and final passage was 11-1. Only at-large Councilor Jose Delgado dissented, consistent his objections to the process that he had raised Monday.

The other item was the revised home rule petition to let Akers serve as a copy after his 65th birthday. Since at least 1987, state law had had a mandatory retirement age of 65 for police. While the state legislature routinely grants exemptions, these have come with restrictions state officials have come to require.

Massachusetts State House

The city delegation has weighed in, but all of Beacon Hill may have thoughts about the Akers petition, too. (WMP&I)

Last week, the Council approved a petition that included these restrictions. Among them was a limit on Akers’s retirement to whatever he would earn should he retire at 65. This effectively keeps much of his salary as superintendent out of his retirement calculation. Largely ignored before last week’s meeting, Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila highlighted this language, which surprised Akers.

The Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, which regulates state retirement boards, confirmed that it requires this clause. Looking at the age waivers the legislature passed in recent years, it appears Beacon Hill generally agrees with PERAC.

Sarno of Denmark

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies; But in battalions.“ (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Mayor Sarno, during his appearance at the full Council meeting on Monday, said the Springfield Retirement Board assured councilors the city addressed the issue. During his remarks, Sarno ostensibly read from a letter Susana Baltazar, the Executive Director of the Retirement Board, had sent.

According to the mayor, Baltazar had been in touch with PERAC and assured that Akers would continue contributing to the retirement system and get a pension that factors in his salary after age 65. It was not immediately clear when Sarno was speaking, but he had not signed the home rule petition the Council passed the week before.

Instead, the new petition came before the Council on Tuesday. Lacking the earlier pension-capping language, PERAC or the legislature could raise objections. Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan alluded to the possibility of problems before the vote. Still, the revised petition passed without dissent.

Sarno had confirmed Monday that State Rep Bud Williams would be taking the lead on the bill in the House. As of Monday, it was not in the legislature’s bill database. When it does appear there, it should receive a hearing.

Nonetheless, if the legislature and PERAC insist on the pension cap, the issue could be back at 36 Court Street soon enough.