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Sarno Imports Familiar Name from across the River for Next City Solicitor…

UPDATED 11:10PM: To note that The Republican has discussed residency with Buoniconti.

Stephen Buoniconti

Blast from the city’s legislative past. (via Valley Advocate)

Another major staffing change has hit Springfield City Hall with the exit of City Solicitor John Payne. Mayor Domenic Sarno has chosen former legislator and onetime district attorney candidate Stephen Buoniconti to replace Payne. Given his late-career return to City Hall, Payne’s exit should not be a shock. Yet, it adds to the wave of turnover city government has experienced in recent months.

Buoniconti has had a colorful and lucrative post-political career in law and lobbying. Agawam’s then-Mayor, Bill Sapelli, appointed him to be that city’s solicitor in 2018. In that sense, he has credentials to be the top lawyer in Springfield. Still, the choice also reflects the narrow band of candidates who can meet the mayor’s loyalty test.

“I have the utmost confidence in City Solicitor Stephen Buoniconti’s ability to lead our Law Department and continue the tremendous work of his predecessors. His legal and public service background make him an ideal fit to serve as our city’s next Solicitor and I am looking forward to working with him,” Sarno said in a release posted to the city’s Facebook page.

That public service background goes back to the last millennium. The 54 year-old West Springfield native served on the then-town’s School Committee and representative town meeting. A Democrat and then a prosecutor, he defeated incumbent Republican state rep Walter DeFilippi in 2000. In 2004, he faced no Democratic opponents and a Republican speed bump to succeed retiring senator Linda Melconian.

The City Solicitor is department head of the Law Department, which usually represents and advises the city and its non-school organs. (The School Department has its own legal representation.) Although the mayor appoints the solicitor, lawyers working for the city have a fiduciary duty to the agencies and departments of the entire city, not the mayor alone.

This has caused some controversy over the years, especially where Law Department advice to the City Council is concerned. The most extreme examples have been when the Law Department actively pushed back on the Council’s attempts to revive the Police Commission and resist the proposed biomass plant. In both cases, this reflected the political position of the mayor.

Nevertheless, historically lower entry level salaries aside, the Springfield Law Department has been an incubator for local legal talent. Their ranks include city clerks, high-powered attorneys, and respected jurists such as retired Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney.

John Payne

Payne still in judge-mode circa 2019. (via NEPM/Adam Frenier)

Payne had been City Solicitor before and went on to become a top district court judge.  He returned to the position after Ed Pikula, a Law Department lifer, retired in 2022. Pikula came to the role when Sarno’s predecessor, the late Charles Ryan, took his second turn as mayor. Yet, Payne’s exit also highlights other recent departures including in the Law Department itself. Deputy Solicitor Kathleen Breck also retired this year.

“Judge John Payne was gracious enough to step forward and once again serve our city of Springfield as City Solicitor, which in effect is a nearly billion-dollar city budget corporate counsel position,” Sarno said in his statement on Facebook.

In the release on Facebook, Payne assured a seamless handover to Buoniconti. The outgoing solicitor called it “an honor and a privilege” to return to city service these past two years.

In the city’s release, Buoniconti thanked Sarno for the appointment. He also promised to work closely with Payne to assure a smooth transition.

Sarno has historically had good ties with political grandees from Westside, including Buoniconti’s successor in the Senate, James Welch. Therefore, it is not surprising that he might find the former legislator sufficiently trustworthy for the position.

Buoniconti’s own turn away from elective office occurred after his unsuccessful bid for Hampden District Attorney, In 2010, incumbent DA William Bennett retired after 20 years, prompting a heated five-way Democratic primary. Buoniconti won with a nose under 39%, but found the general election unusually difficult for a Democrat.

Then-defense attorney and now-federal judge Mark Mastroianni ran as an independent. A grassroots campaign that plugged courtroom experience and panned politicians powered Mastroianni to victory. Meanwhile, charges of hypocrisy and claims of iffy work in criminal law derailed Buoniconti.

To some extent, that election heralded an era of Massachusetts voters favoring experience in the county offices that still exist. After President Barack Obama appointed Mastroianni to Springfield’s federal judgeship, his successor, Anthony Gulluni, was elected essentially out of the DA’s office. A similar pattern has emerged in races for sheriff and register of probate in Hampden County.

Massachusetts State House

Buoniconti was gone, but not forgotten on Beacon Hill according to state records. (WMP&I)

Buoniconti did not disappear from the public realm, however. In 2013, he formed a lobbying firm whose clients include a range of Western Mass interests including the Big E and Baystate Health Systems. On the legal side, he has continued to practice law. There were controversies there, too, namely pertaining to his time as counsel to the Hampden County Regional Retirement Board.

However, his tenure in Agawam where he now lives—Feeding Hills for sticklers—has received praise.

Agawam City Council Vice-president Anthony Russo hailed his professionalism and work as the city’s attorney.

“His knowledge and experience was an asset to the City of Agawam,” Russo said of Buoniconti. “I’ll miss working with him. He truly helped Agawam move forward in a positive way.”

That may ultimately be where Buoniconti can be most valuable to Sarno. Many city bureaucrats and lawyers have undoubtedly kept the administration on track. However, relatively few have had the mix of politics—both state and local—with the law and policy.

Springfield City Hall

Residency, err, home sweet home? (WMP&I)

Sarno’s statement did not indicate when Buoniconti would begin working. Indeed, it is not obvious he can start immediately. Springfield’s general residency requirement for city employees gives the new hires a year to move into the city. Yet, the Law Department’s enacting ordinance independently requires the solicitor to be a city resident. It is not clear which ordinance would take precedence.

Buoniconti told The Republican he would move to Springfield. A spokesperson for Sarno did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. Perhaps it shall be Buoniconti’s first assignment.