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Briefings: New Springfield City Hall Hires Telegraph Broader Transitions Afoot…

Caulton-Harris Kissel Sarno

Caulton-Harris and Kissel meet with Sarno. Is he meeting with the present…and the future? (via Springfield City Hall)

Slowly but surely, Mayor Domenic Sarno is backfilling the parade of retirements and reassignments that have emptied leadership in Springfield city government. Since his reelection—or before if you count former finance czar Timothy Plante—multiple high-ranking and long-serving department heads have exited.  This appears to be largely a function of the inexorable march of time.

Still, the process remakes city bureaucracy, including turnover of veterans from the Control Board era. The Control Board could and did appoint any position. Some officials leaving, like Parks head Patrick Sullivan, predated the Board’s tenure. Appointments that came out this week are not high-profile. Technically, some are not Sarno’s appointments. Yet, they illustrate transformation at City Hall.

On Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced the appointment of the deputy public health commissioner, Elder Affairs Director and 311 director. The Department of Elder Affairs/Council on Aging is an organ of Health & Human Services. The 311 office—which responds to residents inquiries—ostensibly falls under the City Clerk. Sarno announced the appointments in conjunction with HHS Commissioner and City Clerk Gladys Oyola-Lopez.

Sarno and Caulton-Harris said Roy Goodman, the current director of 311, will now head Elder Affairs. Jason Garner, an accountant with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, will replace Goodman, Sarno and Oyola-Lopez announced. Meanwhile, Ann Marie Kissel, a regional epidemiologist with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston, will become the deputy commissioner for public health.

These appointments follow the turnover in the Finance, Police and Veterans Services departments as well as the aforementioned Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management Department.

Sarno slotted his chief of staff and former city councilor Thomas Ashe over to Parks. Deputy police chief Lawrence Akers will replace Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood next month. Sarno promoted the deputy Veterans Services director to the top city vets job. The City Council confirmed Joseph DeCaro to that post last month. The Elder Affairs slot had been open after former director Sandy Federico retired.

Caulton-Harris had long been a respected figure in Springfield, but she became indispensable during the pandemic. (WMP&I)

Without diminishing the 311 appointment, the moves in Health & Human Services deserve particular consideration.

Like both the federal and state government, Springfield’s Health & Human Services Department has a sprawling portfolio. While not proportionately as large Uncle Sam or Aunt Massachusetts’s health agencies, Springfield’s HHS has its principal functions and has administrative oversight of agencies like the Library Department. The ampersand in its title is not just for show either. It actually represents the union of two distinct municipal functions: public health and human services.

Given public health’s broad mandate, as all have discovered in recent years, it forms a substantial part of Springfield HHS’s functions. This includes both pandemic and banalities like food service inspections. There are several direct human services the city also performs.

In short, Kissel’s appointment could become significant. Caulton-Harris has not announced retirement plans. Yet, after three mayoralties and the Control Board, many think she will retire within the next few years. Despite some deviation of late, Springfield department heads often come up through their departments. Her resume includes a public health masters and stops at Boston Medical Center and the Food & Drug Administration. Kissel is young. She only graduated college in 2017, but in a few years she would be a credible contender to succeed Caulton-Harris or a short-term commissioner closing out a career.

Age aside, it is not clear the city will always be able to fully fill voids retiring staff leave. One solution, if fraught, is to contract with retired heads in some capacity. Sullivan will have a post-retirement consultant role to finish out park projects.

Former City Solicitor Ed Pikula still does legal work on a contract basis. Recently retired Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck may be doing the same. This is not an indefinite solution, however. Eventually, the city must reckon with the loss of this experience. This is staff that not only has had lengthy careers in their professions. They also have experience with the petty tyrannies of 36 Court Street and Springfield as a whole.

The challenge for Sarno will be whether he can effectively identify and install worthy replacements—or prize loyalty above all else.

Springfield City Hall

A change is gonna come… (WMP&I)