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City Councilor Questions Springfield Mayor's Decision To Seek New Fire Chief

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WAMC
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    There’s fallout from the surprise move by the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts to announce plans to hire a new fire chief.

     Springfield City Councilor Justin Hurst has publicly questioned Mayor Domenic Sarno’s “bizarre firing” of Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant.   The at-large councilor said he is puzzled by the mayor’s New Year’s Day announcement that he will not be renewing Conant’s contract a year from now.

   " I am almost positive there must be more to it," said Hurst.

    Sarno’s announcement that he intended to search for a new leader for the city’s fire department came two days after the mayor issued a press release in which he criticized Conant for not disciplining a deputy fire chief for failing to move to Springfield after being promoted, as required by the city’s residency ordinance.

    Sarno has declined to expound on his reasons for notifying Conant that he will be removed as commissioner when his current five-year contract expires in January 2018.

    " The decision has been rendered and now we move forward," Sarno said when asked Tuesday why he had decided to replace Conant.  " We want a smooth transition. I thank him for his past and continued service and we go forward from there."

    Conant has declined to comment.

    Hurst said he is skeptical that Conant’s refusal to discipline a subordinate over the issue of residency is the reason for the commissioner falling out of favor with the mayor.

  "There are some fundamental things in the ( residency) ordinance the mayor has not been supportive of, and so it is kind of hard to not follow the ordinance yourself and expect your subordinates to follow the ordinance," said Hurst.

    Sarno, in an interview this week, said he had made it clear to both Conant and Police Commissioner John 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 residency is part of the job specification  and you should act accordingly," said Sarno.

            The city’s residency ordinance, which has been on the books since 1995, requires city employees to live in the city or move to Springfield within a year of being hired or promoted. But some employees, including rank-and-file police officer and “regular” firefighters are exempt and the mayor has the power to grant waivers.      

    In addition, critics say the ordinance has been haphazardly enforced in the past.  Efforts by the city council in the last few years to tighten the residency requirements by limiting exemptions and curtailing the mayor’s authority to approve waivers have gone nowhere.

         Hurst also took a broadside at Barbieri, saying Sarno had “fired the wrong commissioner.”

    Hurst has been highly critical of Barbieri for not firing a detective who threatened to kill and plant drug evidence on two teenagers during a video-recorded jailhouse interrogation.

   The city council voted last year to replace the police commissioner with a five-member board of civilians. But the change won’t happen until Barbieri leaves.  His current contract does not expire until 2019.  Also, Sarno has said the council’s action is “invalid” setting up the likelihood of a lawsuit.

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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