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Diversity of Opinion Regarding Power over Springfield Workforce…

Who holds the balance of power over efforts to diversify city department heads? (created via wikipedia, Spfld City Hall & WMassP&I images)

Members of the Springfield City Council have identified their next target in the battle for control of—and relevance to—city government. For much of the city’s time under Plan A and particularly over the last 30 years, the Council has lingered in the lane of land use and budget review. In recent years, that has changed decisively.

Now the Council aims to use its power to boost diversity among department heads. Following reports of nearly monochromatic leadership among city departments, Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams introduced an ordinance to create a chief diversity officer position for Springfield. Unlike similar battles, Mayor Domenic Sarno may have more than idle threats at his disposal to get his way.

Williams’s ordinance is on the Council’s Monday night agenda.

To thine own power be true? (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

While about a third of Springfield residents are Caucasian, about 80% of department leadership is white per The Republican. Sarno has defended his appointments, citing, among others, Election Commissioner Glady Oyola and Health & Human Services chief Helen Caulton-Harris as minority department leaders.

Yet individual appointments trouble councilors less than whether city employees of color have the tools to advance their careers.

On February 5, President Orlando Ramos expressed concerns with how the Fire Commissioner selection process. Minority candidates had better credentials, he said. Yet the eventual appointee, Bernard Calvi, allegedly interviewed better than the other two finalists.

“That’s a professional development issue,” Ramos said. “That means that we’re failing our current employees by not offering the opportunities to develop those sorts of skill to interview for a higher position.”

Ramos echoed this point speaking to The Republican’s editorial board, alongside Williams and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton.

Sarno has pushed back, reacting somewhat testily to councilors’ recent concerns about diversity in city employment. The mayor often bristles at attempts to manage area he deems exclusively his like city staffing and employment.  This includes issues like residency and police leadership.

Sarno’s response to diversity concerns may have prompted councilors to resort to ordinance.

Williams told the editorial board it was “kind of sad that we have to reach a point where an ordinance has to be filed for this to be considered.”

Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams (via Springfield City Hall)

The Republican reported Sarno is now pointing to Dan M.C. Hall, the city’s equal employment opportunity officer, to suggest the ordinance is unnecessary.  Sarno added that the FY2019 budget may change Hall’s role to something akin to the proposed diversity position.

Councilors are seeking more than someone overseeing state and federal antidiscrimination compliance, though. The intent is to actively nurture the city’s workforce, broadening the number of employees qualified and able to rise to top posts.

The same article states that Sarno claims sole power over job titles and responsibilities. Councilors disagree. The charter ostensibly sides with the Council, but that may not be the final word.

Springfield has a strong-mayor system. A defining feature of this setup grants mayors appointment powers without Council confirmation. State law gives all mayors of all cities—except those with city managers—the power to write budgets. Councils can only cut, not rewrite the budget.

Sarno has taken a particularly expansive view of his appointment powers. He has argued the Council has little or no say over the qualifications and makeup of department leadership without his consent.


This is incorrect. The City Charter explicitly allows the Council to create, abolish and reorganize city departments via ordinance. This would include restricting residency waivers and restructuring Police Department leadership, which councilors have done over Sarno’s veto.

Despite pronouncements these actions violated the charter and would be null, the administration has followed the new residency ordinance. The Police Commission ordinance technically does not take effect until 2019, thus Sarno has yet to defy it.

Sarno’s posture may derive from experience. Historically, the Council has not been especially hands-on in this area of city law. It certainly wasn’t during Sarno’s tenure as a councilor from 2000 to 2007. The sole exception may be creating the Library Department. However, that was different than writing new rules for an existing agency.

At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, a close ally of Sarno’s, alluded to this notion in announcing his abstention from the diversity resolution last month. While emphasizing he supported the resolution’s goals, he felt issues of staffing were the mayor’s dominion.

Councilor Thomas Ashe in 2016. (via Facebook/Ashe campaign)

“I think that we’re overstepping our bounds when we get into that arena,” Ashe said.

In a sense, he is right. However, the boundaries the Council would be crossing reflect a governing norm, not law as Sarno has insisted.

That doesn’t mean the Council will ultimately succeed. While councilors can create the chief diversity officer position, Sarno can decline to fund it in his budget. Nor is the ordinance tailored narrowly enough to limit Sarno’s ability to appropriate around councilors’ intent.

A new diversity position differs from residency or the Police Commission. Neither of the latter two involved money. Instead they spoke to the rules governing city administration or a department. In other words, there was nothing for the mayor to defund, thus sidestepping the ordinances.

Refusing to fund the diversity office position could be politically difficult, though. With even some mayoral allies supporting the underlying goal, the mayor will face pressure to either fund the position or find some way to explicitly pursue the ordinance’s goals.

On the other hand, his public comments show a willingness to catch flak on this issue. The ordinance itself has a winding road to passage. It could go to committee for further review Monday night. If that happens and assuming Sarno vetoes, the bill may not reach final passage until April or May.

UPDATE: The Council referred the chief diversity ordinance to committee Monday night.