Analysis: Sarno All but Declares “La Ville, C’est Moi!” in Church Row…
UPDATED 4/2/18 7:31PM: To reflect an update. The debate on the Council’s order to halt action against South Congregational has been postponed to April 9.
SPRINGFIELD—For a time, with the plunge of Donald Trump’s approval rating, so too had ebbed Mayor Domenic Sarno’s flirtation with the provocateur-in-chief. The mayor spoke with White House staff about urban needs. There was an invitation to visit the city after last year’s Seuss mural debacle. Still, this Sarno-Trump pillow talk felt like a fleeting attempt at attracting Trump voters in the next city election.
Then South Congregational Church began sheltering a Peruvian immigrant slated for deportation. That set the mayor off, insisting Springfield is not a “sanctuary city.” He ordered city officials to determine if South Congregational’s move violated building codes. He also ordered its tax-exempt status reviewed. On the surface, this episode seems to be about immigration, but actually it echoes prior mayoral apoplexy when his rule has been questioned.
On Monday Gisella Collazo, a 17-year city resident married to an American, took shelter at South Congregational, backed by the Springfield Interfaith Coalition. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had laid down her removal for Tuesday. Though ICE could enter the church to remove her, even under Trump, it has not been the agency’s policy to do so for non-violent deportees-to-be.
On Thursday, Sarno railed about the risk Collazo posed to city finances and again invoked the term “sanctuary city.” However that term has no legal significance. Even the US Department of Justice, which has sued communities over their pro-undocumented immigrant policies, assigns it no tangible definition.
Rather, Sarno’s (over)reaction speaks to his inability to countenance defiance of his will. The mayor laid down the law that Springfield was NOT a sanctuary city. Nothing else matters.
Whether Sarno realizes his interpretation of the situation is nonsensical is not clear.
South Congregational is a private entity involved in an act of civil disobedience against the federal government. The city is not a party to the dispute, as at-large councilor Timothy Ryan observed during a press conference Thursday.
“We shouldn’t be in this,” Ryan said.
The Council was to debate an order Tuesday that would halt municipal action against South Congregational’s free exercise of religion. Schedulilng conflicts have moved it to the regular meeting on April 9. The order recognizes the provision of sanctuary to Collazo as part of South Congregational’s spiritual mission.
Sarno bashed the Council’s order in a prebuttal press release, calling it, unironically, an “edict.” His language appeard slightly softer, but still maintained, incorrectly, that federal funding was at risk.
The Council’s action aside, it is not clear Sarno’s move could come to much anyway. Unlike Occupy camps that dotted American cities in 2011, South Congregation is unlikely to have violations severe enough to persuade a judge to sign off on forcibly evacuate a house of worship.
As for the tax status, state law clearly permits taxation of religious institutions’ property no longer in use for worship, education or charitable purposes. Yet, South Congregational has not ceased to be a church. The city would almost certainly lose any legal argument that providing sanctuary, a millennia-old tradition, is not conducive with the mission for which the congregation secured tax-exempt status from the IRS.
Sarno is not siccing the cops on South Congregational because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has said state authorities (which would include local police departments) lack the power to participate in immigration enforcement.
Sarno defends his position as following the law, citing his own parents’ emigration from Italy. That is a hollow contrast as circumstances differ from that time. Immigration officials were not stalking courthouses and undermining local law enforcement’s relationship with immigrant communities then.
As for federal funding, at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman noted even pending lawsuits over so-called sanctuary cities concerned only a narrow portion of criminal justice grants. Money like Community Development Block Grants, which Sarno has specifically cited, would be under threat only if Congress acted. Moreover, any law forcing cities to use all its tools to ferret out an undocumented immigrant would likely not pass judicial scrutiny.
The political pressure is ratcheting up fast, too.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, a longtime advocate of undocumented Springfield residents, lit into Sarno in a release Tuesday.
“Instead of sending code enforcement into this church maybe he should direct them to the hundreds of other dilapidated structures and unsafe housing caused by absentee landlords in our city,” he said. His statement closed by calling Sarno “Mayor Trump.”
On Thursday Gomez added, “For a mayor to attack a defenseless woman is shameful,” he said.
Councilors Timothy Allen, Michael Fenton, and Orlando Ramos joined Gomez, Lederman and Ryan. All spoke in support of Collazo and South Congregational’s right to shelter her. The order could get as many as 3-5 more votes, making it veto-proof.
Others have weighed in. Gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez and Hampden Senate candidate Amaad Rivera have both released firm statements in support of Collazo. Rivera and Gomez are rivals in the senate race, but displayed no daylight on this issue.
The chorus of dissent is only likely to grow especially for events happening in a diverse and politically liberal city—Hillary Clinton beat Trump by nearly 4 to 1 here. Why then is Sarno doubling down on something he cannot win?
The answer lies in that the mayor cannot bear being challenged.
Sarno is not above negotiating on policy and issues. However he jealously guards the power he believes, falsely at times, the mayor’s office grants him.
It is not rational, but it is in character. From residency to police reform, the mayor has bristled when the Council has put forward ideas that were not his or not executed on his terms.
The mayor has called himself a supporter of residency for city employees—and the record suggests this is largely true. Yet he vetoed at the Council’s attempt to impose even a relatively modest change that removed a power of his. Councilors overrode him.
He rejected legislation reorganizing police leadership except for those that codified his own oversight board. That board, accused of being toothless, exists under executive order, not ordinance.
He expressed opposition to the Community Preservation Act, which would give Springfield a smidge more revenue for certain projects. For years the mayor insisted, accurately, that the city had a revenue problem, but he vigorously opposed CPA. Why? He would have no control over the money, the way he does the regular budget.
The pattern is the same. The mayor cannot tolerate anything that threatens his perceived authority. This applies to appointments, budgeting, economic development, or, as with Collazo and South Congregational, the official position of the city.
There are political elements that strain toward strategy. Buttering up Trump—via White House staff—last year seemed too vapid to yield anything, but could pass as an attempt to work with the new administration. City Hall watchers assumed the mayor was trying to appeal to the 11,000 or so Springfield residents who picked Trump in 2016.
But given the mayor’s tenure, connections to Trump feel more casual and coincidental. Sarno, whose professional career has been in government, can play the unifier and the man-in-charge credibly. The real estate tycoon cannot. Sarno will accept expert advice whereas Trump deems himself his top adviser, spurning that which conflicts with his gut. Sarno has also critiqued Trump’s meanness.
At the same time, there are startling comparisons. Despite wall-to-wall reminders of how great Springfield is doing in the Sarno era—in truth, it’s a mixed bag—he remains distrustful of his own electorate. Increasingly, he is playing to his base—as Trump has—often at the expense of the entire city.
Yet as the South Congregational situation shows, the real issue is control. Sarno cannot accept challenges to his image as the central figure in Springfield. It is one thing to adopt this attitude for city government itself, but to extend it to all 33 square miles of Springfield is megalomania.
Amid this imbroglio, the pastor at South Congregational, Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, remarked he was “afraid for the soul of our mayor.” That concern may not be misplaced, but given recent history, Sarno’s problem seems more Freudian than spiritual.