Take My Council, Please: To Receive Your Commission…
SPRINGFIELD—Eliciting boos from the gallery for hesitating on one issue, the City Council moved a matter to committee, while finally making progress on another Monday night. Nevertheless, the issue set the stage for what may be many confrontations between the mayor and the Council in the coming year.
The bulk of the agenda were financial orders and reports passed without debate. Efforts to move the agenda around were opposed resulting in a rare night in which nearly all items were reserved in order.
Comptroller Pat Burns presented an unremarkable December revenue and expenditure report.
Among the items were appointments to the License Commission for confirmation by the City Council. Andrew Cade and Jose Claudio, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council last year, were nominated by Mayor Sarno and received unanimously Council approval.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs praised Claudio, who has been a mainstay in the New North Citizens Council as “a staunch leader in our community.” Claudio served in the Mayor Charles Ryan’s office during the latter’s second tenure and narrowly lost to Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna last year.
The Council accepted en masse zoning, planning and utility reports. The Council approved a series of grants less than $20,000 in value for several city departments. Accepted separately were larger monies including a donation for Camp Angelina and trust income for the City Library. The the Council also approved an appropriation for Mary Troy Park, slated for the former Liberty Library Branch property.
Council committees reported on recent meetings including the new ad hoc committees, which announced they had held their first meetings. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, the chair of Maintenance & Development Committee reporter her committee recommended approval of submission to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for 80% reimbursement for repair projects involving 18 schools. The Council concurred without dissent.
The Finance Committee chair, at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, issued a report on a proposal to buy the old Mt. Carmel School under a lease and sale agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese. The sale price was in excess of 25% of the building’s assessed value triggering a state law that requires the city to use eminent domain proceedings to obtain the property. Consequently, Rooke recommended, and the Council agreed, that more debate was necessary in committee.
A title issue with the Springfield Redevelopment Authority was approved without dissent as was second and final steps for an ordinance regulating inboard/outboard motors in the city. First step was taken to amend the School Building committee ordinance to add the Chief Administrative and Financial Officer and School Superintendent (or his designee) as voting members.
The Council also took action to pass, after well over a year of debate, new pawn shop regulations. The ordinance will, among other things, require pawn shop owners to extensively document incoming items. It would also restore the city old 30 day holding period that existed prior to 2011.
The issue was a flashpoint in Council meetings and during the Fall campaign and became a crusade of sorts for at-large Councilor Tom Ashe, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. Like few issues before, Ashe had pushed the matter throughout last year prompting an unsuccessful showdown in the Council only days before the November election. Longtime allies of the effort including Ward 2 Councilor and now Council President Mike Fenton and others joined Ashe in reintroducing the changes in January.
Although there were comments from Ashe and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, including a notable dismissal that theft insurance obviates the need for the new regulations, it was clear the final steps would be anticlimactic. Pawn shop owners were present, but with the writing as on the wall. It passed final step 11-2 with only Walsh and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion in dissent. Even with the swing caused by two opponents of the ordinance losing reelection, the final vote was a commanding change from the often 7-6 and 8-5 votes that had defined the issue last year.
Far more controversial was discussion of restoring the Police Commission. The Police Commission was dissolved by the Control Board and replaced with a single mayor-appointed Commissioner. The first one, Ed Flynn, stayed only briefly to be succeeded by William Fitchet who serves to this day.
In that time, displeasure with the Department has grown among city residents, who made a huge showing Monday night to back restoring the Police Commission. Several residents addressed the issue during public speak out. More to the point, Councilor Twiggs, whose ward includes the Mason Square area, noted since moving to a sole commisioner, “We’ve spent a lot on rogue police officers.”
Restoring the commission was a big part of last Fall’s Council campaign championed by Ernesto Cruz, who did not win, and later at-large Councilors Walsh and Bud Williams who did. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos signed on (and cosponsored the measure). At-large Councilor Justin Hurst had been expected to back it as well.
The ordinance restores a Commission that regulates and metes out discipline for the Police. Daily and operational control would return to a Chief under Civil Service. Since the ordinance’s appearance last year, Sarno announced his intention to replace the outgoing Fitchet with one of the department’s deputy chiefs in an ostensibly non-public process. Community proponents of a commission claim the mayor’s process is merely a front for the predetermined selection of Deputy Chief Robert McFarlin.
However, at Monday’s meeting, Hurst announced concerns about a lack of qualifications for commission members, the meeting schedule and adding bureaucracy between the mayor and the department. Hurst questioned the Council’s authority to reestablish the commission, something City Solicitor Ed Pikula has also done. Hurst urged a legal opinion from the Law Department, which Pikula heads.
While commission supporters were not certain enough votes existed to override a mayoral veto, Hurst’s comments were interpreted as opposition by some and caught supporters off-guard. Williams, with whom Hurst had clashed in the campaign, focused on the prior existence of the commission and claimed qualifications would require all boards would then need them (many do). He urged a vote that evening.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hurst said it was incorrect to characterize his statements Monday night as opposition, “Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the commission.” However, given proponents’ intentions and the threat of litigation, he said the proposed ordinance does not appear to achieve the goals of commission backers.
Hurst also dismissed any suggestion that Sarno’s support or opposition for the ordinance was a factor, “Whether the mayor is on board with it or not is irrelevant,” Hurst said. Sarno endorsed the freshman at-large councilor in the 2013 Council race last summer.
Twiggs, a commission backer, cut through the bull, chiding Williams’s strained defense of the ordinance and saying the Law Department’s opinion was likely a forgone conclusion. “We know what the City Solicitor will say,” namely that re-instituting a commission violates the mayor’s appointment powers.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, a cosponsor, noted under the current system community input is often ignored. As an example, Edwards said of Fitchet, “Generally he has stated that he has a philosophical objection to community policing.” Edwards observed Sarno has praised police leadership, even as crime and/or the perception of it has only risen. “We need to recognize that the citizens have whispered, sometimes talking sometimes yelling in our ear that this is something that we want,” he said.
In addition to a motion for a legal opinion, there was also a motion for committee. Ashe, the Public Safety Chair who had voice opposition to a reinstituted commission in the past, promised to hold hearings soon. “I am mindful that there are variable opinions,” he said, somewhat obliquely acknowledging at one point proponents’ concern that time was a factor.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen started off saying he was only leaning a certain way, but wanted to know just why the Commission was abolished in the first place. Edwards, in an exchange with Assistant City Solicitor Anthony Wilson, noted that Fitchet’s current contract gives him all disciplinary power and cannot be legislatively transferred without breaching.
At that point Allen became less equivocal and said the Council essentially had to act before Sarno appoints a new commissioner with whom the mayor could contract to give the powers the Council wants to give to a commission. Allen alluded to Sarno’s announcement during the summer in 2012 of a 15 month extension of Fitchet’s contract to its current Spring 2014 expiration.
During the meeting, Rooke, who later described himself in an interview as unconvinced, not opposed to the ordinance, highlighted the Control Board-era Buracker report. The Control Board replaced the position of police chief with commissioner and abolished the Commission. The report actually suggested the commission remain to handle police discipline and advise the mayor. Rooke voted against codifying a non-binding disciplinary board in 2011 arguing then police would end up second guessing themselves.
During the meeting Rooke cited unexecuted efficiencies the Buracker report identified and afterward said, “When we pay good money [for a study], we should implement” its findings. Rooke declined to say how the Council could force that implementation under the current commissioner system.
The request for a legal opinion, requiring only five votes, passed 6-7. Luna, Shea, Walsh, Allen, Hurst and Ashe voted in support, clearing the threshold. A vote to send the item to committee succeeded 12-1 with only Fenton in dissent.
In the interview with WMassP&I, Hurst emphasized his concern from Monday were about flaws in the ordinance as written and whether potential litigation with the mayor would be worth it. “If court is the next step, I question on whether it will achieve the goals,” he said. He pointed to the fact that commission would be fully appointed by the mayor, but acknowledged he had not contemplated how the staggered nature of the Commission appointments might diffuse mayoral influence over time.
Hurst also clarified that he wants to hear from Law Department or “independent counsel” as to the Council’s ability to act. When asked how he might react if the mayor refused to authorize funding for a legal analysis independent of the mayoral-appointed City Solicitor, Hurst said it was too soon to tell.
The issue of the Police Commission is about a lot more than just instituting civilian control over the police department. It sets the stage for a battle over control of city government. It lays bare community concerns the succession process may be a dog & pony show. But it should also compel a debate about how the Police Department is being run. Fitchet’s contract requires performance reviews, which should be discussed both in context of the present and his successor. But of course, that appears not to be happening.