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Springfield Mayor Plans Search For New Fire Chief

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno on stage

      There are clouds over the futures of the top public safety leaders in Springfield, Massachusetts.

   Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno announced in a terse press release issued late on New Year’s Day that he had decided not to renew the contract of Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant when it expires a year from now.

    Sarno declined Tuesday to elaborate on the surprise move.

    " The decision has been rendered and now we move forward," said Sarno. " We want a smooth transition. I thank him for his past and continued service."

    Conant did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.  He joined the fire department in 1987, and has been commissioner since January 24, 2013.

    Springfield’s fire commissioner and police commissioner are now both lame ducks. 

   The City Council voted last month to replace the police commissioner with a five-member board of civilians.  That change will be effective when Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s current five-year contract expires in 2019.

   Sarno’s announcement that he plans to hire a new fire commissioner came two days after the mayor criticized Conant – again in a press release – for refusing to discipline a deputy fire chief for failing to move to Springfield within one year of being promoted, as required by the city’s residency ordinance.

  "This had to do with a number of things," said Sarno. " I wish him the best and as Bill Belichick said: 'We are on to Cincinnati.' "

   Sarno, in an interview Tuesday, said he had made it clear to both Conant and Barbieri that he expected the deputies who serve under them to abide by the residency requirement.

   "These individuals know that if you have the opportunity and the honor to serve in this kind of rank then residency is part of the job specification and you should act accordingly," said Sarno.

   Springfield’s residency ordinance, which has been on the books since 1995, requires people hired or promoted by the city to live in Springfield, or move to the city within one year.   But state law exempts school teachers, rank-and-file police officers, and “regular” firefighters from local residency rules. Some municipal unions gained exemptions through collective bargaining and the mayor has the power to grant waivers.

   Critics say the exemptions and waivers have made enforcement of the existing residency ordinance all but impossible.

  Newly-elected City Council President Orlando Ramos commended Sarno for “taking a stern position on residency.”

   " I pledged my support to the mayor to work with his administration to make the ( residency) ordinance stronger and more enforceable," Ramos added.

  Ramos said he encouraged the mayor to pursue a national search to replace Conant.

    "We want to make sure we get the best candidate for the position and obviously it comes with a residency requirement, so if we were to find someone from outside the city who is the best fit for the job they would be required to follow the residency ordinance," Ramos said.

  Springfield is not alone in Massachusetts in wrestling with municipal employee residency requirements.  Boston, last year, enacted a new ordinance requiring all top municipal officials to live in the city, but exempts current employees.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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