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Briefings: Despite Intrigue, Sarno Promotes from Within to Fill His Office’s Vacancies…

Bill Baker

But can Baker really cook as chief of staff? (via Springfield City Hall)

A day after announcing his chief of staff would take over the Park, Buildings & Recreation Management Department, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has named his new top aide. Communications Director William Baker will now lead Sarno’s office ahead of what could be a defining year in his new term.

There had been significant intrigue around whom Sarno would select to succeed Thomas Ashe. Baker had seemed like the obvious choice. There are few people around Sarno who could take on the role and deliver in the way the mayor has come to expect. While Baker will represent some continuity with Ashe, his relationships with outside entities, especially the Council, will differ.

“I want to thank Mayor Sarno for his belief, trust and confidence in my abilities,” Baker said in a statement from the mayor’s office. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve my hometown of Springfield.”

Patrick Sullivan’s retirement as executive director for parks and buildings had been telegraphed for weeks and possibly months. Ashe’s name as successor began bubbling up in that time. By contrast, the identity of Ashe’s replacement had become a subject of speculation among the city’s chattering classes. Those who knew—or those who projected knowledge—were coy, escalating interest.

In the end, the process played out much like it had when other openings occurred in Sarno’s inner office. Succeeding Baker as Communications Director is Molly Shea, who had been constituent services director. Baker had held the same role before he became comms director in 2019. Mayoral aide Genesis Velez-Roque, a Hurricane Maria survivor, will take Shea’s position. Replacing her will be Rose McCaffrey, who worked on Sarno’s reelection campaign last year.

The statement from the mayor’s office say the changes will take effect April 2.

Denise Jordan

Denise Jordan was by far one of the mayor’s longest serving staffers, epitomizing the stability of the office earlier in Sarno’s tenure. (via Twitter/@SpfldMACiiyHall)

Despite the growing complexity of government, mayoral staff in Springfield, a strong-mayor city, remains relatively small. Roughly a half dozen staffer work directly in the mayor’s office and all with fairly broad portfolios.

Sarno’s mayoral office had shown remarkable stability in its earliest years. Denise Jordan served as his chief of staff for nearly 11 years. Ashe took over after Jordan left to head Springfield Housing Authority in 2018. There was some turnover in comms and constituent services. However, figures like Thomas Walsh and James Leydon served for many years.

Yet, Marian Sullivan’s rather unceremonious exit in 2019 put the mayor’s office staffing on a bumpy road. The pandemic aside, it included the firing of Darryl Moss—who has since sued for wrongful termination—and musical chairs of staff that for a time included now-Ward 5 Councilor Levar Click-Bruce.

Baker, however, was a constant in this period. Indeed, on the subject of the pandemic, Sarno credited his new chief of staff with stage managing his COVID-19 briefings.

“He has been my ‘behind the scenes’ guy for some time, someone that I can always count on,” Sarno said of Baker in his office’s statement. “This was never more evident than during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic where he helped to coordinate my administrations weekly COVID-19 briefings” with city health officials and hospital leaders.

Tom Ashe

Ashe will only be a few miles away in parks office, but the mayor may miss him. (WMP&I)

While an affable and now longtime City Hall denizen, Baker may not have the same type of connections Ashe had. In his statement the mayor referred to Baker as his “liaison” to countless stakeholders, including electeds on all levels. However, Ashe was a bona fide elected official himself.

What warmer, if not exactly red-hot, relationships that now exist between the mayor and some councilors are partly a product of Ashe joining Sarno’s staff. Moreover, Ashe has been visible in city politics for even longer than he was on the Council. That undoubtedly had utility in maintaining the relationships with state legislators and the federal delegation.

If anything, the recent clash between Sarno and legislators over the Police Commission ordinance is a reminder of how impactful these relationships can be.