Amid the national debate over policing, elected officials in the largest city in western Massachusetts may be going to court over who should run the police department.
The Springfield City Council has voted to hire its own legal counsel. It is the latest move in a prolonged stalemate with Mayor Domenic Sarno over establishing a civilian board of police commissioners to oversee the Springfield Police Department.
The Council voted to retain the free legal services of two Northampton-based lawyers, Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo. The order approved by the Council in an 11-2 vote stated the attorneys could “bring an action to litigate this dispute in the courts” if directed by a future vote of the Council.
City Council President Justin Hurst was authorized to immediately sign an agreement with the lawyers.
"If there is anyone who believes we can move this city forward without action, it is not the City Council," said Hurst.
Standing with his new clients at a press conference in front of City Hall, Lesser said the legal dispute goes beyond the question of whether there should be a police commission.
"We think the issue goes to the heart and soul of the role of the City Council," said Lesser. "We believe in a system of checks and balances. A mayor has certain powers. A city council has other powers."
Twice since 2016, the City Council has voted to create a five-member Civilian Board of Police Commissioners with the authority to hire, fire, and discipline police officers and set policy for the department. Twice the Council overrode the mayor’s vetoes. Sarno has yet to appoint the civilian board.
Councilor Jesse Lederman, the lead sponsor of the order to hire the attorneys, said for everyone’s benefit the impasse needs to end.
"To finally resolve this conflict in local government once and for all so that we might move forward as a city together in a commitment to improving police oversight and accountability as well as community-police relations," said Lederman.
Before the Council’s vote Tuesday, Sarno stood firm. He insists he is within his legal rights under the city charter to ignore the police commission ordinance. Sarno maintains that having a single professional police commissioner in charge is the best way to run the department.
Sarno said it would be “a shame” if the city’s legislative branch sued the executive.
"I want to work toward solutions, not conflict," said Sarno. "There is a path forward here. There does not have to be any conflict."
Springfield has a civilian Community Police Hearing Board, which reviews complaints about police from the public. But it lacks subpoena power to conduct thorough investigations and its recommendations about discipline are not binding on the police commissioner.
City Councilor Adam Gomez said the current system of civilian oversight is not working.
"It is important for us to hold the ones that are suppose to protect and serve accountable," said Gomez. "It is a problem and an issue that police are holding police accountable."
Springfield had a civilian police commission for decades. It was abolished 15 years ago by the state-appointed finance control board.