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Springfield councilors push ahead with effort to resurrect citizen police commission (MassLive)

November 22, 2018

Read the original MassLive article by Pete Goonan here. 

 

SPRINGFIELD -- The lead sponsor of a proposal to resurrect a five-member citizen police commission to oversee promotions and discipline rejected the idea of waiting for the city's contract with Police Commissioner John R. Barbieri to expire.

 

Councilor Timothy Ryan said that while Barbieri's current contract is set to expire at the end of May 2019, there is nothing stopping the mayor from extending the contract before it expires.

 

If the council was to wait, and a contract for Barbieri is extended, "then you're caught in the situation where the City Council is chasing its tail waiting for contract after contract to expire," Ryan said.

 

Ryan said there is a "very strong sentiment" to bring back the police commission and to have a diverse board of citizens oversee a police department, which he described as essentially a quasi military organization.

 

As commissioner, Barbieri currently oversees the department including day-to-day operations and all promotions and disciplinary action.

 

In 2016, the council overrode a veto by Sarno and passed an ordinance to reinstate the five-member citizen police commission. That ordinance called for all commission members to be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

 

Sarno called the ordinance invalid and in conflict with city charter, and never took action to appoint the commission.

The proposed ordinance, as filed by Ryan and co-sponsors last week, received first-step approval from the council on Monday.

 

The new proposal follows a nearly two-year legal standoff with Mayor Domenic Sarno.

 

It would place the commission in charge of hiring, firing, promotions and discipline.

 

Sarno, however, said he continues to oppose the ordinance, believing that such responsibilities -- including discipline -- should remain in the hands of a single commissioner and are protected in his current five year contract. The contract expires at the end of May, and Sarno said he will make a decision regarding any contract extension "at the appropriate time."

 

"My position has been well defined -- keep it professional, not political, and legally sound," Sarno said. "The modern day model of a professional police commissioner administering and directing the department is the trend across the country, and has worked well here."

 

City Solicitor Edward Pikula also said the revised ordinance still conflicts with the city charter and Barbieri's contract.

Ryan, as Monday's meeting, said he does not foresee Barbieri "running to Superior Court" to sue the council to try to protect his current powers over disciplinary matters.

 

Ryan said Barbieri would retain all other administrative powers and would still be the "top cop" in Springfield, whether the police commission is formed or not. As proposed, it would convert Barbieri from commissioner to police chief.

 

The proposal for the commission surfaces as the Police Department has been stung by multiple police misconduct allegations including officer Gregg Bigda and former detective Steven Vigneault being indicted last month on federal civil rights charges relating to the interrogation of two juvenile suspects accused of stealing an unmarked police cruiser in 2016.

 

Two Springfield police officers were arrested and charged in federal court Wednesday in connection with allegations of police brutality.

 

Councilor Jesse Lederman, another sponsor, praised Ryan for pushing for passage of the revised police commission ordinance, saying the council has a responsibility to the residents of the city and its police officers to adopt the most fair and most just system for disciplinary matters.

 

Lederman said Barbieri is "a good man, a fair man," but believes a citizen commission is needed for department oversight.

"It's about a philosophy of government that says if you break up power, then by its very nature, you increase transparency and increase accountability," Lederman said.

 

The proposed ordinance needs a second and third-step vote for passage, which could occur in December.

 

The sponsors of the ordinance are Councilors Adam Gomez, Justin Hurst, Michael Fenton, Marcus Williams, Lederman and Ryan.

 

A civilian police commission existed for decades in Springfield until it was eliminated by a state-appointed Finance Control Board that oversaw Springfield during a budget crisis.

 

The mayor appoints city boards and commissions.

 

Ryan is offering an amendment to the 2016 ordinance that would remove a requirement for the council to have to confirm or deny the mayor's appointments to the commission. 

 

Instead, Ryan is proposing that the mayor would have sole powers to appoint the board, with no council confirmation.

As another amendment aimed at resurrecting the commission, the new language calls for the ordinance to "take effect upon passage."

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