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Court Fight Likely Between Springfield Mayor And City Council

City Councilors in Springfield, Ma voted 9-3 to override Mayor Domenic Sarno's veto of an ordinance creating a five-member board of police commissioners.
City Councilors in Springfield, Ma voted 9-3 to override Mayor Domenic Sarno's veto of an ordinance creating a five-member board of police commissioners.

A showdown in court appears likely between the executive and legislative branches in the third largest city in Massachusetts in a dispute over the management of the police department.

Prompted by anger over how the police department responds to misconduct allegations, the Springfield City Council voted 9-3 Monday night to override Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto of an ordinance to put a civilian board in charge of the police force.

The council also authorized what would be the largest payout in the city’s history -- $1.4 million – to settle a lawsuit against the police department.

City Council President Mike Fenton who wrote the ordinance to create a five-member board of police commissioners, and introduced it last month with nine co-sponsors, said he was “very excited about the outcome.”

The ordinance now becomes law in 20 days. But language in the legislation delays its effective implementation until Police Commissioner John Barbieri leaves office or until the end his current five-year employment contract in 2019.    Day-to-day operations of the police department would be turned over to a police chief, while the police commissioners would make all personnel decisions.

At a meeting last month of the city council’s Public Safety Committee, City Solicitor Ed Pikula said the ordinance conflicts with the power given the mayor under the city charter to organize all city departments.

" Its an invalid ordinance," Pikula said at the committee meeting.

In his veto message, Sarno echoed the city attorney’s opinion that the council is illegally usurping the mayor’s authority.  Sarno had no immediate comment on the override vote. At a news conference Monday afternoon just hours before the vote, he declined to comment when asked if he would enforce the ordinance if the override succeeded.

Fenton was blunt when asked what will happen if Sarno does not adhere to the police commission ordinance.

" If  he chooses not to enforce it, the city council is prepared to litigate it," said Fenton.

There was little debate prior to the rollcall vote to override the mayor’s veto. Supporters of the ordinance spoke at length during the meeting on Dec. 5th when the council voted 10-2 to pass it.  Councilor Justin Hurst, who voted for it two weeks ago, was absent for the override vote.  Councilor Tom Ash, who was not at the earlier meeting, voted to sustain the mayor’s veto.

Ash, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said it would be a “great mistake” to return to a police commission.

" I certainly understand and respect all my colleagues opinions on the matter, but I want to make sure were are making decisions  based on facts and not on emotions and so forth," said Ashe.

Springfield had a civilian police commission in charge of the police force until a decade ago when it was eliminated by a state-appointed control board that was running the city at the time.  Critics said under the management of the old commission the police department was rife with political patronage and cronyism.

The impetus for the police commission ordinance came from Barbieri’s decision to suspend, and not fire, a police detective who was video-recorded during a jailhouse interrogation threatening to kill and plant drug evidence on two teenagers. 

In addition, no disciplinary action or criminal charges have been brought 19 months after a group of off-duty cops were allegedly involved in a fight outside a bar that resulted in injuries to civilians.

Fenton confirmed that city councilors, meeting in an executive session, approved a $1.4 million settlement for a man who sued the city claiming police detectives framed him for a murder he did not commit.

Charles Wilhite was convicted of murder in 2010 for a fatal shooting two years earlier outside a neighborhood grocery store. After spending nearly three years in prison, he got a new trial and was subsequently acquitted when two witnesses recanted their earlier testimony.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2014, Wilhite alleged two detectives coerced the witnesses to wrongly identify him as the gunman.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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