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Briefings: Council Calls Sarno’s Bluff, Overrides Residency Veto…

This story is developing. A fuller account of Monday’s meeting will be posted soon.

Taking a stand? (WMassP&I)

Taking a stand? (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—In a strong rebuke to Mayor Domenic Sarno, the City Council here overrode a veto of a law intended to tighten the rules thatrequire city employees to live in Springfield. The vote Monday night was a win for those who argue city jobs should go to city residents and councilors who overcame the mayor and City Solicitor’s strenuous objections. Both argued the ordinance violated the city charter.

The ordinance originally received final approval from councilors two weeks ago, only to be vetoed by the mayor the next day. Sarno had rejected a similar bill in 2013, but the Council failed to secure the nine votes needed to overrule the mayor at the time. Now, with several councilors who sustained that veto gone, the Council overcame the mayor’s opposition 11-2. Still, the actions at Monday’s Council meeting may not be the last word on the matter.

The ordinance mirrors the one drafted in 2013. It limits the issuance of waivers to the requirement that municipal employees be city residents. Non-residents could still be hired, but only after a job is reposted to allow Springfield residents another opportunity to seek the post. At the same time, department heads and deputies would no longer be eligible for waivers.

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Sarno and City Solicitor Ed Pikula had argued that the city charter gives the mayor unfettered appointment powers and thus the ordinance was invalid. Others, both inside City Hall and out, also argued the city should not deprive itself of qualified talent that balks at living within the city’s confines.

That argument left several councilors unconvinced, who saw residency as a means to steer more city jobs to Springfield’s underemployed and underprivileged populations.

Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, said the qualification argument was actually an insult, “You’re alienating our people, saying they’re not qualified.”

Others were offended by the mayor’s accusation that councilors who questioned the residency of some district fire chiefs, were “vilifying” Springfield’s Bravest.

Noting that she looked up “vilifying,” at-large councilor Kateri Walsh said, “To suggest that the Springfield City Council does not appreciate or value the service of the Springfield fire department is disingenuous.”

The veto, only Sarno’s second since taking office in 2008, was historic. The Council has not successfully overrode a mayoral veto in at least fourteen years.

What now? (WMassP&I)

What now? (WMassP&I)

However, the passage of the ordinance does not ensure implementation. Given Sarno’s opposition, councilors or other affected parties may need to go to court to ensure enforcement. That leaves the new rules in doubt, potentially for months or years.

As other councilors noted, the ordinance only affects future employees. Moreover, many unionized workers are exempt from the ordinance under their collective bargaining agreements and/or state law.

Another complication was a claim by HR/Labor Relations Director Williams Mahoney that the city has been enforcing the ordinance and only about 15 waivers had been granted since 2013. That year the Council approved a year grace period for non-residents to move to Springfield after beginning employment with the city. That would appear to limit the utility of restricting waivers. Mahoney also noted several labor contracts that did not include residency now do.

In a broader context, the issue has the potential to become the battleground for a much broader question about the Council’s ability to affect, influence or limit the mayor’s power.

Councilor Michael Fenton (WMassP&)

Councilor Michael Fenton (WMassP&)

The Council chamber erupted with applause after the vote, but some longstanding advocates of stronger residency rules like Council President Michael Fenton were more subdued, “It’s a win and it’s been a long time coming.”

Asked what the next step would be if the mayor still refused to enforce the ordinance, Fenton replied, “You’ll have to ask him that.”

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