Take My Council, Please: Sarno Taken for an Override on Police Commission…
SPRINGFIELD—City councilors called Mayor Domenic Sarno’s bluff and overrode his veto of an ordinance reviving a commission to oversee operations of the city’s police department. The veto had come within hours of the Council’s initial approval of the changes two weeks ago, but Sarno has signaled an intention to ignore the ordinance regardless.
The 9-3 vote itself, part of the Council’s last meeting of 2016, was fairly anticlimactic and only a few councilors spoke. Earlier in the day, Sarno announced a new appointment to his Community Police Hearing Board telegraphing a shift in strategy, but conceding in effect, he had lost the battle at the lawmaking stage.
At-large councilor Justin Hurst was absent due to a death in the family, although he had been among the more vocal proponents of reviving the Commission. Overrides require nine votes, meaning Hurst’s absence left supporters with the bare minimum needed to press the ordinance forward.
Ever since the Control Board abolished the original Police Commission and transferred its powers of hiring, discipline and organization to a sole Commissioner, there have been efforts to revive it. The new ordinance reverses the Control Board’s action.
Sarno has established a review board to hear complaints from the public and make recommendations to the commissioner, but incidents like the Gregg Bigda case have prompted public outcry for more direct citizen control of the department.
Councilors began by going immediately into executive session to discuss the Wilhite case. They ultimately approved the $1.4 million settlement by greenlighting a funds transfer. Full details were not immediately available as of posting time.
Returning to open session, the Council accepted a $282,470 grant for the Elder Affairs Department and a few nickel and dime. A $28,000 transfer was also approved.
At the behest of the Library Department, the Council authorized an inter-agency lease between the Library and School departments. The Library Department is seeking grant money to fund construction of a branch library for East Forest Park on the grounds of Mary Dryden School.
The Council granted an easement on the school property the city now owns near Mount Carmel church to the Roman Catholic Diocese.
A labor pact with library managers represented by AFSCME Local 1596A received Council approval. The agreement, which runs through June 30, 2020, includes annual 2% raises and other workplace rules. Compliance with the city’s residency ordinance is already included.
Among Committee reports was an update from Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, the chair of the ad hoc Young Professionals Committee. He said the food truck ordinance had made progress, but it would not be ready for the full Council until February or March.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, Chair of the Responsible Employer Ordinance Committee, also recommended final passage of changes to the city’s rules for public project contractors. However, the changes will not take effect until the city receives a study on the ordinance sometime around summer. The ordinance passed second and third step by unanimous votes.
The Council also passed first step on a new ordinance to expand the city’s demolition-delay ordinance to city owned property. Council President Michael Fenton, ceding the podium to Vice-President Orlando Ramos, said the new ordinance aims to direct money slated for demolition as an enticement to refurbish dilapidated historic properties. If there is no interest, demolition would move forward.
The ordinance passed first step on a voice vote.
Elsewhere City Comptroller Pat Burns submitted the monthly revenue and expenditure report and Mobilitie utility reports remained in the Maintenance & Development Committee. The Council also authorized a reconstruction of the intersection of Island Pond Road and Roosevelt Avenue.
The final stage in the legislative drama on the Police Commission came Monday afternoon when Sarno appointed Gary Berte, a criminal justice professor, to the Complaint Hearing Board. Most of the board was present, suggesting the press conference was an attempt to deflect the politics in favor of a Commission by emphasizing the people on the current panel.
Sarno did repeat past arguments such as his belief the current system kept City Hall politics out of Pearl Street. He and City Solicitor Ed Pikula, who staffs the Board, also emphasized the time commitment board members put in to review cases.
“You can see these people do their job,” City Solicitor Ed Pikula said, noting the transparency of the board. “I think these people deserve the respect from the entire community for the way they’ve done their job.”
“I’m proud of this board, which doesn’t look for any kind of accolades,” Sarno said. “When people indicate there is no citizen participation or citizen review, they’re wrong,” the mayor later added.
Commission proponents do not doubt a civilian board exists, however. Many consider discipline being imposed by a uniformed commissioner dubious. Although there is evidence Commissioner John Barbieri’s hands were tied, some residents are also concerned cases like Bigda’s never went to the review board as he waived his right to a hearing.
During the brief debate on the override, Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez underscored that this push was in respond to the people’s demand for a change.
At-large councilor Thomas Ashe, who missed the last meeting, but would have voted “no,” made a last ditch effort to urge rejection of the Commission. He made a parallel to the legislature’s decision 23 years ago to take the hiring decisions out of school committees’ hands.
“School superintendents are now in charge of hiring and firing,” Ashe observed.
Nevertheless, the Council overrode the veto with councilors Ashe, Timothy Rooke and Ken Shea in dissent. No councilors voting in favor of the ordinance two weeks ago changed their votes. The ordinance becomes law when upon publication in 20 days, but the revival of the commission does not take effect until 2019 when Barbieri’s contract expires.
With the mayor signaling plans to ignore the changes, litigation seems likely. Fenton, the outgoing Council President, said the Council will fight on in court if necessary, but welcomed Sarno’s voluntary enforcement.
Springfield City Council votes 9-2 to override mayor's veto of ordinance putting civilian commission in charge of police dept pic.twitter.com/yQLd9iGx2X
— Paul Tuthill (@ptuthill) December 20, 2016
The override was the second this year. The first involved the elimination of waivers to the city’s residency ordinance. Although Sarno likewise promised to ignore that change as an impermissible intrusion on his appointment power, there is little indication he done so.
While Sarno publicly supports employee residency, he opposes the Commission outright. Monday afternoon, the administration declined to outline its approach before the vote, but indicated the Council could not itself press the issue without a lawyer. Sources indicate, however, councilors will have counsel to pursue the matter.
The meeting concluded with the informal caucus to select the next Council President. Ramos, the current vice-present and the Ward 8 Councilor, was unanimously nominated in the Council’s annual informal caucus. Councilor Hurst was nominated for vice-president in absentia.
Both will be formally installed on January 2 at which time there may be some indication of where the battle over the Police Commission is going—or not depending on what the mayor’s next move is.