Springfield City Council votes overwhelmingly to greenlight lawsuit against mayor (MassLive)
READ THE ORIGINAL STORY FROM MASSLIVE HERE.
SPRINGFIELD - The Springfield City Council overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday to wage a lawsuit against Mayor Domenic J. Sarno over the restoration of a five-member civilian Board of Police Commissioners.
Only At-large member Sean Curran voted against the measure, considered for the first time publicly during a brief special meeting of the council.
Eleven others including City Council President Justin Hurst, among 10 sponsors of the measure, voted yes.
“We did have a police commission in the 1970s and 1980s and for a lot of reasons it just didn’t work,” Curran said. “I do believe the strong police commissioner model is the way to go.”
However, many members of the council have lobbied for the throwback entity for years -- after it was dismantled in 2005 in favor of a single police commissioner with sovereign power over hires, promotion and discipline including firings.
Opponents of the police commission have argued the panel became hyper-politicized over decades with candidates for advancement or their proxies clamoring for promotions, or on behalf of others to fend off discipline.
Tuesday’s vote came after a series of closed door meetings. Northampton attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo volunteered pro bono services in June.
The vote also comes after years of rancor among certain councilors, Sarno and members of his administration who have stood staunchly behind a single-commissioner model.
The council approved an ordinance to create a five-member police commission in 2016, overriding a veto by Sarno. The council took another vote to create a commission in 2018. The mayor responded by refusing to make appointments to the commission, arguing the ordinance is legally invalid.
This position has been bolstered by City Solicitor Edward Pikula.
Hurst has long argued reviving the police commission will balance the scales of power.
“Mayor Sarno has a duty to the citizens of Springfield to implement the laws passed by this legislative body. The system is broken when this fails to occur and democracy is compromised. Because the City Council does not have our own attorney who isn’t beholden to the Mayor, we have been unable to resolve this legal question for years," he said following the vote.
“Thankfully, we now have pro bono legal counsel willing to litigate this issue on our behalf and through it all, a City Council who has remained steadfast in their desire to ensure a balance of power in our local government continues to exist,” Hurst said.
Fellow At-large Council Jesse Lederman said restoring the commission will improve transparency within the police department.
“A civilian Board of Police Commissioners will foster needed transparency and accountability in the administration of our police department’s policies, procedures, and personnel processes. Furthermore, it’s the law,” he said after the vote.
In addition to Hurst and Lederman, voting yes were At-large councilor Tracye Whitfield; Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez; Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton; Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards; Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown; Ward 5 Councilor and Council Vice Present Marcus Williams; Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila; Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen; and Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos. At-large member Kateri Walsh was absent.
Sarno last year submitted a proposal to the council to expand the powers of the existing nine-member Community Police Hearing Board. The proposal includes granting the board subpoena powers as it investigates allegations of police misconduct.
Councilors have not acted on the mayor’s proposal, instead standing by the civilian police commission ordinance.
The existing advisory board can make recommendations for officer discipline, but decisions are up to the police commissioner. Appointed by Sarno last year, Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said she has always supported or exceeded the board’s recommendations in terms of discipline.
However, some councilors, including Whitfield, contend the civilian review board does not wield enough power.
“The current system to include the Community Police Hearing Board just isn’t working. The oversight of the Springfield Police Department should be independent of the police department. Civilians should be comfortable enough to voice concerns outside of the law enforcement agency," Whitfield said. "In addition, we need full transparency and the assurance that disciplinary actions are imposed when required and necessary.”
The proposed timing of the lawsuit remains unclear.
“I’ll leave that to the attorneys,” Hurst said on Tuesday evening.
Michael Angelini, a Worcester attorney handling the matter on behalf of the city, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.