SPRINGFIELD—For the first time in over a decade, Domenic Sarno was not taking an oath in an even year January. In the middle of the city’s first four-year mayoral term, he along with a packed Council chamber of family, friends, elected officials and city department heads looked on as thirteen councilors, including two newcomers, were sworn. Then the Council itself made history and chose Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton to lead the body.
The Inauguration of the City Council was a brief, but upbeat affair. In November, voters elected the most diverse body in the city’s history with a majority of minorities on the Council among other elements of diversity. Women remain underrepresented, however, with only two female members.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst placed first in November displacing former at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera who placed sixth for the five at-large seats. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos replaced John Lysak, who was elected with the first round of ward election in 2009. Ramos had faced Lysak that year and 2011 and came up short both times until last year.
Msgr David Joyce of Holy Name Church in Springfield offered the invocation for the ceremony followed by a rendition of God Bless America from Vanessa Ford. City Clerk Wayman Lee administered the oath of office to the Council before the body proceeded to elect its president. The president appoints committees and chairs Council meetings.
Fenton’s election was quite a turnaround for both himself and the Council, which had picked Ferrera for two years in row. During the first year of the previous term, Fenton was essentially excommunicated from the committee process. During the second year, Fenton had committee seats and a chairmanship, but the Council torpedoed a number of his initiatives.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs formally and enthusiastically nominated Fenton who was then elected unanimously by his colleagues. Fenton had jockeyed for the presidency with at-large Councilor Bud Williams, but in December when the Council conducted its informal caucus to select President and Vice-President, Fenton was the only nominee.
“Oh I would certainly like to make a comment,” Twiggs said after the ceremony when asked to be interviewed. “There couldn’t be no one better qualified to be president at this time than Michael A. Fenton.” The Ward 4 Councilor said he had urged Fenton to run in years passed, but could not get the necessary seven votes. “This year we started early,” he said.
Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, who has been a local political mentor of Fenton’s, swore in the Hungry Hill turned Atwater Park resident as the Council President.
In his speech to the Council, Fenton, a lawyer who turned 27 yesterday, relayed a bit of history about City Hall, the Council and Springfield itself. “As the newly elected leader of this body, I am responsible for capturing the significance of this moment—the start of a new term for the Springfield City Council.” He noted how the Municipal Group, consisting of City Hall, Symphony Hall (first called the Municipal Auditorium) and Campanile were built after a 1905 fire destroyed the old building.
The Classical architecture building saw history unfold before it, Fenton explained, from its dedication by former President Howard Taft in 1913 to the Campanile’s bells ringing in peace after the World Wars, to the addresses John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton gave on its steps just before winning their elections in 1960 and 1996. “I remember because I was there on my father’s shoulders,” Fenton said, “I remember being proud that I was from Springfield, where things like that happened.”
Fenton noted today’s Council chamber today was once used by the Common Council. The Board of Alderman, which with the Common Council formed the City Council, met across the building until its abolition in 1961. That year a nine member all at-large unicameral Council took over. “[T]here were attempts to reintroduce ward representation” almost immediately, Fenton said, which went unrealized until 2010 when “myself and seven others were elected from one of each of the City’s eight wards.”
Sarno, in a brief interview, praised Fenton’s family and the young Council President’s inclusion of the city’s history in his speech. Fenton does his homework, the mayor said, “We’ve worked well together even in disagreement.” Fenton, in his speech, had kind words for Sarno as well, perhaps presaging a desire by both to collaborate after often being “in disagreement” over the last four years.
Fenton waxed by turn both humble and a little not. Noting how “a 27 year-old Irish-American from Hungry Hill” was “[by] some miracle” a member of the Council, but also its first Ward Councilor to be president in half a century. Now, he and his colleagues had an opportunity to “recapture that emotion” of pride in their city, which he and his late grandfather had when Clinton visited some 16 years ago and counter the city’s reputation for crime and poverty.
Fenton the segued into his agenda for 2014. While he noted the diversity of race, age and socioeconomic backgrounds of councilors, he also noted the Council’s duties, responsibilities and by implication its powers. Fenton announced the formation of two special committees to be composed of citizens and councilors that would focus on finding new revenue and making the city attractive to young professionals like himself.
But he also promised a “busy year of legislating” with residency, pawn shops, and civilian commissions for police and fire. Drawing applause, Fenton also promised to lobby the state to bury I-91 and reunite the city’s downtown with the Connecticut River.
Fenton closed with another reminder of the Council’s charge to diligent work and another thanks to his colleagues and supporters. He gave special recognition to his mother, Mary Beth, who along with his father, uncle (a former City Solicitor) and sisters were in attendance.
His father, also Michael Fenton, expressed pride in his son’s accomplishments. He praised his son’s intellect and said he could have built his career up anywhere from Washington to New York to Boston, but he chose to stay in Springfield. “I was kind of surprised that he said he wanted to stay home. The reason was he could continue his education and help with his plans for the city.”
Ellen Freyman, the board chair of the Affiliated Chamber of Commerce of Greater Springfield and a partner at Schatz, Schwartz and Fentin where Fenton is an associate, offered words of support as well. “I’m really proud of Mike,” she said, “That’s why I was really excited and anxious to have him join the firm because I know of his potential. I know about his leadership skills.” She added that she was “looking forward to all of the exciting things he’s going to do as Council president.”
The Council unanimously elected at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh as the body’s Vice-President. The Vice-Presidency is largely ceremonial, although if the President wishes to engage in debate, he must cede the podium to the Vice-President. The Councilor’s picked their seats by lot and the ceremony closed with a prayer for unity offered by Rev. Dr. W.C. Watson, Jr. of the Canaan Baptist Church.
Later in the day, the School Committee was sworn in. Dr. Calvin McFadden replaced Antonette Pepe at-large, while fellow at-large Committee member Denise Hurst was elected Vice-Chair of the Council. The Mayor sits as the formal chair of the Committee. Rosa Perez was also a new face on the Committee, supplanting Norman Roldan for the Ward 1/3 Committee seat.