The Year in Springfield, 2021…
In the end, for Springfield, 2021 may have come to define the city’s limits. Some of those limits were long overdue. Courts ruled twice on the limits of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s power and the coronavirus revealed the limits of his influence. But those limits also included accountability. The slow implosion of cases that sought it from city police officers shall serve as an enduring reminder of the challenge ahead.
Springfield began its year in same the light and dark that had hovered over the nation. A miracle vaccine offered a light out of the pandemic. An insurrection undermined the over two centuries of peaceful transitions of power. While the impact of the Capitol riot was about the same here as everywhere else, the vaccination campaign echoed like some places if not the whole commonwealth.
As the city welcomed a new presidential administration, it was being left out of the cold by the gubernatorial one. Governor Charlie Baker’s relatively last-minute decision to redirect vaccine supplies away from local public health entities would prove to be fateful. The city would host a mass vaccination center in Eastfield’s ex-Macy’s. However, it would never be an engine of vaccination for city residents themselves. Once the city had vaccine of its own, it may have been too late to flood Springfield with it.
Its most visible flaws, seniors waiting in the snow, would be quickly corrected, but the chance to dodge other impediments to vaccinating the city would pass largely unnoticed. While Springfield passed its pandemic anniversary in relatively good shape in March, the situation would be on a knife’s edge until year’s end.
While the city’s Health Department was as well-resourced as a city of Springfield’s ilk could be, the failure was ultimately one of politics. It is true that Sarno acted when resources were asked of him, but his instincts to rely on the same political channels he always has would limit vaccine outreach. A legacy of poor health in Hampden County and Springfield in particular, which after 12 years is at least partly an incumbents problem, left too little trust in the community to fix what would go wrong.
To be absolutely clear, Sarno has never doubted the vaccine and never doubted the coronavirus’ severity. His concern about resident was and is real. It is a sad commentary on politics and the world today that this even requires note. Mayors everywhere have struggled to contain the virus, though some, because of better vaccination rates, are dealing more with lingering fears than viral biohazards.
While strands of genetic material wrecked their havoc on the perception of who was in charge, judges were doing the same in court. In 2020, the mayor was sued to appoint the Police Commission the City Council had revived in 2016. He had refused then, arguing the ordinance was an illegal infringement on his power. In April, Hampden Superior Court Judge Francis Flannery said the Council was right. Sarno had an obligation to appoint the Commission.
Sarno appealed and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in December. However, it was one of the clearest curbs on Hizzoner’s power since taking office in 2008. If the SJC upholds Flannery’s ruling, it will put squarely into the driver’s seat of policy. As if to underscore this point, another judge in December ruled that the city had to enforce the Residency Ordinance. While Sarno had never put up nearly as much of a fight on that issue, skepticism about his fealty to the concept has existed for years. Now the courts agree residency exists the city must enforce it.
Not all things in Springfield were about Sarno, however.
The city’s congressman, Richard Neal, chair of Ways & Means, played crucial roles on the three main piece of legislation the House produced this year. After playing a central role in drafting of the American Rescue Plan Act, Neal’s committee oversaw portions of the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act. While the latter faces headwinds in the Senate, the former is already making waves.
Advocates from Trains in the Valley to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to Senator Eric Lesser saw the bill’s passage and its funding of rail corridors as key to making East-West rail a reality. Amtrak wants more Albany to Boston—and therefore Pittsfield and Springfield—service. Even the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, long a thorn in expanded service’s side seems more willing than ever. The agency released recommendations that suggest a Downeaster-like regime.
In April, longtime biomass opponent Councilor Jesse Lederman joined with Senator Ed Markey to fete the seemingly final death of the proposed Page Boulevard power plant. The support of the Senator and his colleague Elizabeth Warren proved critical to state environmental regulators pulling the plug.
The city election, as many of its midterms, seemed destined to be soporific. However, several races proved more heated than most anticipated. Wards 1 and 8 were open after Councilor Adam Gomez and Orlando Ramos had taken office in the legislature—the same day at the Capitol riot. Ramos served out his term, but Gomez resigned. For the first time, likely ever, the Council had to pick a replacement for Gomez (he had no opponent in 2019 to whom the seat would default).
They chose his father Gumersindo. However, he opted not to seek his own term. The only filer turned out to be Maria Perez, the School Committee member for Wards 1 and 3. Her seat’s only contender was Joesiah Gonzalez. Meanwhile, two women would file for Ramos’ seat. This all but assured an expansion in the indefensibly low number of women serving on the City Council.
The Census had welcome (enough) news for Springfield, too. While most of the 413’s population sagged, the city’s population grew modestly over the last ten years. Aside from a robust outreach from the Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin and the Springfield Election Commission, the city’s strengths like decent housing likely helped.
In legislative redistricting, the stronger population numbers and political haggling likely helped the city keep two senators. Senator Gomez’s new district covers more of the city, but Senator Lesser retains the southern periphery. The city will lose a foothold in a state House seat with two seats that came in from the north pulling out. But the Longmeadow-based 2nd Hampden makes a return to Forest Park. Congressional redistricting changed almost nothing for the city, though Neal secured a district with fewer people likely to support a primary challenger.
Springfield did escape local electoral chaos as the legislature redrew its map before the city redid its wards and precinct. Its new precinct map lines up with the states.
Changeover took hold in the Clerk’s office as well. Tasheena Davis stepped back from that office and returned to the Law Department (she left city service entirely in October). The City Council ultimately chose Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola-Lopez, Mayor Sarno’s preferred choice. She retained her oversight of the Election Commission, though the arrangement has never been publicly fleshed out.
As hot vax summer congealed into cold variant autumn, Springfield’s lagging vaccination figures began to stand out. Even as Massachusetts became a leader in vaccination, the city lagged. Even when shots seemed scarce, many clinics saw slow traffic. Amid a surge in hospitalizations at Baystate and Mercy medical centers, the city reimposed a mask mandate. However, officials conceded compliance was low.
Despite Sarno touting his relationship with Governor Baker, it was never clear if he ever asked for something big: like putting the full weight of the commonwealth behind vaccinating the city, perhaps to be a laboratory to replicate the effort in other cities. Would it have worked? Cities nationwide have struggled to vaccinate their populations. Though New York and Philadelphia have found success.
That surged ebbed, but it resumed as the colder months and shorter days marched on. Sarno announced the mask mandate would return in the New Year. To what effect shall be determined.
In the election, things stayed largely as expected. There were no surprises. Every incumbent won. Yet, the number of women councilors shall double. Both women elected at large won reelection alongside Perez and Ward 8 Councilor-elect Zaida Govan.
Meanwhile, the wheels of justice seemed to turn at long last in several criminal cases. However, none of have resulted in convictions. Gregg Bigda escaped conviction in federal court. Several officers Attorney General Maura Healey prosecuted in the Nathan Bill’s case have seen charges dropped or an acquittal.
One prosecution, which is not a true Springfield story also collapsed—for now. Healey also prosecuted Bennett Walsh, the son of City Councilor Kateri Walsh for his role in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID-19 outbreak. Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough said her office had not produced enough reliable evidence to sustain the charges.
Healey is appealing, but she may not actually see the process out—if she runs for something else. Governor Baker finally came down from the mountain and announced he would not enter the promised land of a third term. After conversations with family, he is declining reelection as is his lieutenant governor Karyn Polito. Neither will be on a ballot next year. Healey had looked like she might run, but avoided confirming as Baker was in limbo. By year’s end, there was no Healey announcement, but she will need to declare sooner rather than later.
With the coronavirus flaring anew, likely in a mix of Delta and Omicron variants, the city’s situation looks uncertain, at least short-term. While Sars-CoV-2+ patients pack city hospitals, the full nature of the situation is somewhat opaque. Omicron has proven less severe in nation after nation, but being responsible for an explosion of cases does not mean Delta’s shadow has passed. Nationally, there are whispers that many inpatients are not hospitalized for COVID reasons. Yet, Springfield’s poor vaccination rate cautions against any blithe assumptions.
Either way, the end seems closer still than not, but another rough month or so lies ahead. But city boards remain virtual, creating a drag on some panels like the Council itself. Public health resources shall remain strained. The fog of the economic impact cannot clear for now. While he revived returned mask mandate, Sarno has declined to impose employee vaccine mandates. In his announcement, the mayor seemed as confused as he was vexed that residents would not vaccinate. Confusion about the rejection of life-saving vaccines is reasonable. Vexation that residents would not heed his advice is misplaced.
Perhaps the virus has made clear that the era of imperial mayors in Springfield is over. The detachment of the population from civic life and cultivation of insiderism has come home to roost.
The city faces profound questions it must begin to answer from how to fully spend its allotment of ARPA funds to how it can be healthier. Failure to rebuild networks of trust with the whole community, independent of old political hands, shall wreak more havoc on residents’ health than the coronavirus ever could.