Possible Sarno Purge Begins with Historical Commissioners Who Challenged MGM…
UPDATED 9:33PM: To update the photo of councilor Walsh.
SPRINGFIELD—Fresh off his reelection, Mayor Domenic Sarno spent last Wednesday writing letters. Not all of them were thank you notes. Three in particular went to members of the Springfield Historical Commission to thank them for their service as it would soon be at an end.
Those three commissioners, Marjorie Guess, Robert McCarroll and Ralph Slate, the commission chairman, also scrutinized MGM the most while reviewing the casino design’s impact upon historic properties. Consequently, Sarno’s move has been viewed as political retribution for not following the mayor’s eager embrace of MGM, and may presage a broader City Hall purge by Sarno.
The news sent ripples through the preservation community and residents, especially after Sarno had apparently nominated new commissioners without following state law and city ordinance.
“I think it is a tremendous loss,” at-large councilor Kateri Walsh said, emphasizing the service and experience of the commissioners. Walsh said constituents had already conveyed objections to her about the dismissals.
Word got out Friday that Sarno had nominated William Duquette, Alphonso Nardi, a former historical commissioner, and Victoria Rowe. Although the mayor makes most appointments unilaterally, state historic preservation law is different.
Codified under chapter 40C, the law allow councils to confirm appointees and requires mayors to solicit two nominees from local architects, real estate brokers and historic preservation societies. A 1983 law allowed Springfield to add another nominating body, the Springfield Preservation Trust. City ordinance requires the mayor to select from nominees put forward by all four groups.
Slate is Historic New England’s nominee, which fills the historical society under 40C. McCarroll is the Trust’s representative. Both were appointed by former mayor Charles Ryan in 2004. Guess, appointed in 2001, does not hold a seat nominated by a third party.
State law stipulates that commissioners serve for three years or until their successors are appointed and qualified. All three will serve until the Council confirms the mayor’s appointees, provided the nominations comply with the law.
In an interview with WMassP&I Sunday, McCarroll predicted Sarno would not press the current appointments.
Walsh would not countenance appointments outside the law, “I will encourage the City Council not to be rubber stamps and do the right thing.”
Late Monday night, Masslive reported that Sarno claimed the nominations were merely preferences. The mayor’s office said the City Clerk forwarded the nominations to the City Council “inadvertently.” Though Sarno took responsibility for the confusion, if nominees were only “preferences,” it is unclear why they went to the clerk at all.
Emails to Sarno’s office requesting comment were not returned as of posting time.
The letter to commissioners, as described to WMassP&I, is dated November 4, the day after Election Day. Nominees were transmitted to the City Clerk on November 6, suggesting the replacement process began weeks ago, but still came as a surprise and disappointment.
“We had a lot of good things planned out for the future,” Slate said in a phone interview. “I hope the commission will continue down the same path.”
“What is the thought process to remove somebody like Bob McCarroll?” Walsh said, noting his involvement in historic preservation and city events like the Mattoon Street Arts Festival.
Speaking to WMassP&I, McCarroll was philosophical. “It is a mayoral prerogative to replace commissioners whose terms have expired,” but, he added, “I find it interesting that the three commissioners being replaced are the three least receptive to MGM.”
Guess, McCarroll and Slate had strongly urged greater preservation of buildings within MGM’s footprint. The façade of the YWCA building on Howard Street was particularly contentious. MGM only proposed recreating part of the nineteenth century building’s façade, while commissioners wanted the facade itself saved at a minimum.
While other issues were eventually settled, if imperfectly, the YWCA remained a sticking point for weeks. The Commission deadlocked 3-3 on March 19 with Guess, McCarroll and Slate voting against MGM’s mitigation plan. On April 2, with Guess absent, the plan passed 3-2. McCarroll and Slate dissented.
While McCarroll, Slate and other commissioners did meet with Massachusetts Historical Commission staff during its review of MGM’s plan, the local commission’s only official casino-related act since was unanimously approving MGM’s new mitigation plan after the 25-story hotel tower was deleted.
A spokesperson for MGM declined to comment on Sarno’s appointments.
While commissioners interviewed for this article said no administration officials demanded a quick end to the review process, there was pressure.
At the April 2 meeting, the City Solicitor, Director of the Department of Public Works and the Fire Commissioner made a clearly coordinated push to convince commissioners to drop demands for additional preservation of the YWCA.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula and Slate briefly crossed swords over delays that night. Pikula warned continued deliberation would delay the project, imposing fines on MGM. Slate said the commission was merely doing its job. MGM ultimately pushed back its opening date to avoid conflicts with I-91’s rehabilitation.
That show of force was a subtler sign of the administration’s displeasure. Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy was a bit blunter.
According to a source with regular business at Springfield’s Tapley Street building, home to planning staff who work with the commission, claimed Kennedy approached McCarroll the day after a commission meeting this past winter. The source saw Kennedy annoucne to McCarroll, “We are not very happy with you!” referencing commissions’ refusal to accept MGM’s mitigation plan.
When asked about this encounter, McCarroll declined comment.
Media reports say the mayor’s office denied politics or retribution were afoot. A Sarno spokesman said the affected commissioners’ terms expired, adding the mayor wants to shake up commissions and boards and appoint new people. Some are unsatisfied with that answer.
“I am interested in why the mayor is seeking to remove them,” Ward 2 councilor Michael Fenton emailed, “The City Council hasn’t received an explanation from the mayor as of yet.”
While the affected commissioners’ terms have run out, New England Public Radio reported all commission terms have expired. The longest-serving commissioner, Thomas Belton, appointed by then-mayor Richard Neal in 1987, is not in Sarno’s crosshairs.
Nor has Sarno shown interest in filling open slots with new blood. City ordinance allows up to four alternates, but the only one today is Steven Shultis who took the place of Benjamin Murphy once he was elevated to full commissioner in 2013.
Even full seats have gone unfilled for years at a time. Maria Acuna, who held the realtor-nominated seat, resigned in 2009, but Sarno did not appoint Vincent Walsh to replace her until 2012.
Both appointments to and actions by the Historical Commission have been political footballs before, but this cleansing could upset the institution’s continuity. Commissioners face a steep learning curve, which could affect the protection of historical assets or, alternatively, expose the city to litigation.
The loss of institutional memory on the commission is a concern, too. With the replacement of Guess, McCarroll and Slate, only Belton has served for more than a few years.
Noting that the commission has no employees of its own, McCarroll observed, “I’m concerned that if they don’t have that background knowledge themselves and they have no staff that gives them that background knowledge, then we’re going to be in trouble.”