As a municipal election year begins in January, the mayor of the largest city in western Massachusetts and the city’s legislative body are clashing. One of the disputes could wind up in court.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and the City Council find themselves at odds over the divisive and sometimes emotional issues of protections for undocumented immigrants and civilian oversight of the police department.
The council gave final approval Monday night to an ordinance that directs city employees to not inquire about an individual’s immigration status. It also forbids any interference with a medical, educational, or faith-based institution that is providing refuge to immigrants.
Describing it as a “sanctuary city” law, Sarno vetoed the “Welcoming Community Trust” ordinance. He said it would essentially instruct city workers to “look the other way” and potentially put the city in legal jeopardy.
" When you start saying 'its ok to look the other way, you don't have to enforce this, you don't have to enforce that'," Sarno said it could open a Pandora's box.
Sarno has also stated the ordinance could result in an influx of immigrants that would put a financial burden on the public schools and city services.
" I am all for legal immigration and a pathway to American citizenship, but I have an obligation and a duty to the taxpayers here in the city of Springfield and many people are struggling right now," said Sarno. " For people to say 'they don't get any services', they certainly do get services if they go to the hospital, or get school services. Fine. Those are costs."
Supporters of the measure say Sarno’s concerns are unfounded. Proponents of the ordinance say it will make Springfield safer by fostering trust between local officials and immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
The lead sponsor, Councilor Adam Gomez, criticized Sarno for portraying undocumented immigrants as burdens on society.
"It is an embarassment to consistently argue with an adminstration that is not fact-driven when it comes to this particular issue," said Gomez adding that many undocumented immigrants are employed and paying taxes and some are homeowners in Springfield.
Before final passage the council amended language in the ordinance that would allow the police to inquire about immigration status as part of a criminal investigation.
The City Council will need nine votes to override the veto when it takes it up in January.
The ordinance was passed on a 10-3 vote.
On the police oversight matter, the City Council voted 11-2 to override a veto by Sarno of the Council’s latest attempt to put a five-member Police Commission in charge of the Springfield Police Department.
The council passed a law in 2016 creating the commission over the mayor’s veto. Sarno pronounced the law to be in violation of the city’s charter and did not implement it.
Asked what he would do with the latest version of the police commission law, Sarno said he plans to ignore it.
City Council President Orlando Ramos said the mayor and the council could be heading to a showdown in court.
" We are the legislative branch of the city and we are the ones that make the laws and so the mayor will have to following the law," said Ramos, who said going to court to force Sarno to appoint police commissioners is " an option."
Springfield had a police commission for decades. It was disbanded in 2005 by the state-appointed finance control board that was running the city at the time.
A single police commissioner, who is hired by the mayor, is in charge of the police department.
A civilian panel appointed by the mayor is authorized to investigate complaints of police officer misconduct and make recommendations for discipline. The panel’s findings are not binding on the police commissioner.