Take My Council, Please? No, on the Police Commission, Take Our Counsel…
SPRINGFIELD—City Councilors voted Tuesday to accept legal counsel from a pair of Northampton-based lawyers in the ongoing dispute with the mayor over the Police Commission. Some 42 months after the body revived the Commission over Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto, it remains in limbo. Sarno has refused to appoint the Commission’s membership, insisting the enacting ordinance violates the charter.
During a remote meeting, typical of the COVID-19 era, councilor voted 11-2 to appoint Attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo to represent them. The meeting did drag out a bit, but after the vote, masked councilors gathered at City Hall to underscore that the stakes went beyond any of the players themselves.
“This is not about the mayor or the police commissioner. It is not about the city council versus the mayor,” Councilor Jesse Lederman said at the evening press conference. Instead,it was about the Council’s authority and representing constituent demands for police oversight.
At City Hall, Council President Justin Hurst also praised his colleagues, taking a wide angle view of their advocacy and organization amid the COVID-19 outbreak and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
“I am proud to stand side by side with my colleagues on such an historic day,” he said, referring to the vote. “The citizens of Springfield ought to be proud, the hard work of my colleagues has paid off, and we will continue to fight for the citizens of Springfield.”
The order also authorizes Hurst to execute an engagement letter with Lesser and Aleo. The City Council did something similar in 2014 when it authorized then-President Michael Fenton to sign an engagement letter with Attorney Patrick Markey for the biomass appeal.
Council will must vote again to authorize Lesser and Aleo to file suit against the mayor. Lesser said Tuesday evening he and Aleo would submit their position to City Solicitor Ed Pikula in the coming weeks.
Pikula had participated in the Council’s public meeting, also remotely, and acknowledged his differences with the Council’s position. However, he disclaimed interest in frustrating the Council’s acceptance of counsel or its opportunity to litigate.
“I, as you can imagine, do not want to see conflict between our bodies of government. However, this appears to be a foregone conclusion,” he said.
Rather, Pikula added that he knew both attorneys and hoped their counsel could facilitate a solution without going to court.
Lederman, who steered the order through the virtual meeting, did not articulate a timetable on a vote to sue. Councilors will wait for their attorneys to present options.
The Finance Control Board abolished the Commission in 2005 and instituted a sole police commissioner to run Pearl Street. The Council unsuccessfully tried to revive the Commission several times after the Control Board bailed in 2009. By 2016 a string of police scandals fueled enough political momentum to override Sarno’s veto.
Aside from policy objections, Sarno and Pikula have claimed resurrecting the Police Commission infringes on the mayor’s appointment powers. They argue the Council cannot give the Commission the authority to appoint the department’s day-to-day leader, even though he would appoint the Commission itself.
The mayor has carried on as if nothing had changed. His blithe rejection of the ordinance has left Pearl Street and City Hall in a legal black hole. As a corporate body, the Council would need a lawyer to represent them—pro se is not an option. Councilors’ past attempts to secure such counsel either failed or collapsed amid mistrust and bickering.
Tuesday’s vote changed that, capping a sudden turn of events across the city.
National protests against the brutal killing of Floyd at the hand—or rather knee—of a Minneapolis cop have swept through Springfield, too. Revival of the Police Commission is among local activists’ demands.
Lesser and Aleo’s offer of pro bono representation came together in the last week or so. It first formally manifested in an order to accept their representation the Clerk noticed on Friday.
Both Lesser and Aleo, who are also active in state and national political circles, have broad legal practice between them. Lesser has litigated complex issues throughout Western New England, including against the commonwealth itself. Aleo started his career with a civil rights group and still litigates civil rights and employment matters. Both attorneys have faced off against and on behalf of municipal bodies.
At the press conference, Lesser said the case was important because it went to the heart and soul of the Council’s role in city government.
“We believe in a system of checks and balances,” he said explaining his and Aleo’s interest. “The mayor has certain powers as city council has other powers.”
Among them, are its ability to set up city organs like the Police Commission.
Councilors made similar points during the meeting.
“I think this strikes at the heart and soul of the council and the authority of the council and the role of the council,” Councilor Kateri Walsh said. The legislative process played out and its integrity continued integrity matters.
“It is very important not only for us, but for future councils,” she continued.
In a brief interview, Lesser called the case one of statutory construction. He likened it to the Supreme Court’s Monday ruling that interpreted a 1964 law barring discrimination on account of sex to protect LGBTQ citizens, too.
“It’s not any different from the case decided by the US Supreme Court,” he said.
Being the Springfield City Council, there were hiccups. At Lesser and Aleo’s recommendation, the body to removed references to their law firm. That was partly a prophylactic measure to emphasize their counsel as individual attorneys. Their law partners have no role.
One partner, William Newman, is also the regional director for the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union. The state ACLU recently filed a public records suit against the city and the police department. Lederman disclosed this during the meeting. Lesser and Aleo have sought state bar counsel guidance to be safe, but no conflict is likely.
Councilors also debated whether to enter executive session at length. Councilor Fenton had recommended the move to discuss the Council’s intentions and some strategy. However, there were some complications.
Pikula advised the Council that Lesser and Aleo may not be able to join them in executive session until after accepting their representation. Otherwise, legally, they would be interlopers during this exception to Open Meeting Law.
Fenton suggested the Council meet without them and return to open session. Debate dragged on. Councilors became antsy about logging in and out of separate remote meetings for the executive session (City Clerk Tasheena Davis had prepared a separate Zoom meeting for the Council to meet privately).
Ultimately, the Council rejected an executive session 9-4. Councilors Fenton, Lederman, Timothy Allen and Victor Davila supported the motion. The Council also unanimously clarified that the order had immediate effect.
The two dissents from approving the final order were Fenton and at-large councilor Sean Curran. Fenton did not object to legal counsel on principle and remains open to filing suit. However, he telegraphed that the body should air its objectives before “hiring” Lesser and Aleo. During the meeting, Curran said he opposed the Commission.
Nevertheless, councilors exhibited a measure of restrained pride on the steps of City Hall. Councilors Hurst, Davila, Lederman, Adam Gomez, Orlando Ramos, Marcus Williams and Tracye Whitfield addressed the press alongside Lesser and Aleo.
Ramos observed that one of his first votes was for a Police Commission, which their late colleague E. Henry Twiggs sponsored. This path was not the preferred path. During the meeting, Ramos even said Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood has done a good job with some exceptions. But tonight’s move became inevitable given the mayor’s opposition.
That became clear earlier on Tuesday. The mayor’s new compromise offer was the same thing councilors had rejected many times before.
“The issue that we have at hand is city council authority. We are the legislative branch in the city,” he said.
At-large Councilor Whitfield described her own journey from a new councilor opposing a 2018 bill bolstering the still-unrealized Commission to full-throated supporter. Research and conversation with colleagues led her reassess, but the reinstatement of five cops charges with lying to investigators accelerated her transformation.
“That changed my whole opinion of what I formerly believed, because that position of power was really disturbing to me,” she said.
But she and many of her colleagues held out hope for more cooperation across city government.
Other councilors lamented that it had reached this point. While other cities have had internecine litigation among its branches, Councilor Davila said he could find no example of the Springfield City Council suing to enforce a duly passed ordinance. Considering litigation left him with “profound sadness.”
However, he continued, the Council had an obligation to provide oversight of the Police Department, which could have an impact for years to come.
“We live in challenging times, we have arrived at a time of change, change must occur because what we have is not working,” Davila said.