SJC says Springfield mayor’s powers on policing have limits

Springfield may be one of the Massachusetts cities with a “strong mayor” form of government, but the mayor’s extensive powers over city government are not unlimited powers.  

That was the clear message in a Supreme Judicial Court ruling issued on Tuesday that represented a strong rebuke to Mayor Domenic Sarno, who had claimed unilateral power over the city’s police department, which has been mired in controversy and the focus of community criticism.

More than 100 years ago, in 1902, the Springfield City Council established a five-member commission, whose members were chosen by the mayor, to oversee the police department and hire a police chief. Fast forward to 2004 and the Legislature put the fiscally-teetering city under the management of a finance control board, which assumed all power over city government. Among other moves, the board eliminated the police commission and put the police department under the sole control of a commissioner, appointed by the mayor. 

With the city’s fiscal health improving, the finance board was dissolved in 2009, and a decade later, in 2018, the city council approved – and overrode Sarno’s veto of – an ordinance restoring the five-member police commission that was in place prior to 2004. But Sarno balked at reconstituting the commission, arguing that it infringed on his executive powers as mayor. 

The council took the issue to court, arguing that the mayor may have broad power to run the city, but the city charter gives it power to reconstitute city departments. A Superior Court judge agreed, and the SJC upheld that ruling in its decision this week. 

“We conclude that the city council may so reorganize the police department, based on the plain language of the relevant statutes and city ordinances,” the court said, in a decision authored by Justice Scott Kafker. 

The SJC said there remains some uncertainty over whether the five-member oversight commission or the mayor has authority to name the new police chief, an issue that the court said it would not weigh in on in this case. Under either scenario, however, since the mayor names members of the commission, the court pointed out that the mayor’s power to “influence, if not control, the selection of any police chief is significant.” 

That said, City Council President Marcus Williams hailed the decision as a victory. “I’m elated by the decision,” said Williams, who called it a “landmark” case in affirming the powers maintained by a city’s legislative branch, even under a “strong mayor” city charter that invests a lot of authority in a city’s mayor. Williams also said he hopes the new five-member police commission will bring a needed community perspective to the department.  

“We thought all along it was a clear-cut case,” said Michael Aleo, a Northampton lawyer who represented the city council in the case along with his law partner, Thomas Lesser. 

Sarno, who was first elected in 2007 and is now Springfield’s longest serving mayor, acknowledged the ruling and said he’s ready to move forward. The SJC “determined that the City Council has the right to require me to appoint a Board of Police Commissioners. I accept that responsibility,” Sarno said in a statement. 

The battle over police oversight comes as cities across the country grapple with calls for police reform, particularly in relation to departments’ dealings with communities of color. The SJC framed its decision in this light in the opening line of its ruling. “As cities across the country consider changes to their police departments to ensure greater accountability, control over these decisions can be hotly contested, as it is in the instant case,” the decision began. 

Police accountability has been a particularly salient issue in Springfield, whose police department was the subject of a scathing 2020 report by the Department of Justice documenting a long history of use of excessive force by its narcotics unit. 

Sarno indicated that Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood will continue to lead the department under the return to a five-member police commission. Williams, the city council president, said the reorganization with a new oversight commission would be a good time for a fresh start with a new police leader who can strengthen police-community relations. 

All of which suggests the court ruling may have settled the question of the department’s structure, but the debate will continue over the department’s policies and practices. 

MICHAEL JONAS

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Baker defends tax cuts: Gov. Charlie Baker testified in person at the State House on behalf of his $700 million package of tax cuts. He said the state can easily afford the package, which includes some provisions to help those on tight incomes and some to bring Massachusetts more in line with other states and prevent an exodus of higher earners.

– The tax package creates an interesting political dynamic. Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill haven’t pushed tax breaks despite the state being flush with cash. The Republican governor’s tax package puts them in an awkward spot. At Tuesday’s hearing before the Revenue Committee, Sen. Adam Hinds questioned Baker’s priorities (too much emphasis on cutting the taxes of higher earners and not enough on low earners) but seemed to acknowledge the soundness of Baker’s overall approach.

– Baker said he wouldn’t mind if lawmakers increased the rental tax deduction and the dependent care credit, which generally benefit lower-income residents. And he defended significantly easing the burden of the state’s excise tax and cutting the short-term capital gains tax from 12 percent to 5 percent by saying the changes were needed to keep the state competitive. He said many residents have learned from the coronavirus pandemic that they can live anywhere, so it’s dangerous for the state to drive them away with onerous tax policies.

“We are losing money to people who are literally just replatforming their lives in a way that’s not that complicated for them and leaving Massachusetts as residents,” Baker said. “We lose all of their incomes up until the time they die.” Read more.

Voting costs: State Auditor Suzanne Bump says expanded voting hours in municipalities will cost the state $2 million this year. Read more.

OPINION

Update hate crime laws: Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover urges passage of legislation she filed to give the state’s hate crimes statute more clarity so more prosecutions can move forward and crimes that can destabilize neighborhoods can be addressed. Read more.

Timing right: Jim Jordan, formerly of the Boston Police Department, says the timing is right for eliminating “systemic racialization” in the criminal justice process in Massachusetts. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The State House opened to the public for the first time in more than 700 days, with a trickle of visitors showing up. (Boston Globe

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The Sandwich Boardwalk, where many of the planks carried the names of sponsors, was badly torn up and scattered during a recent storm and town officials are trying to recover the many pieces. (Cape Cod Times)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Jim Ansara, co-founder of a Beverly-based organization that builds health care facilities in high-poverty areas of the world, said meeting Dr. Paul Farmer, who died earlier this week in Rwanda, in 2009 changed his life. (Gloucester Daily Times

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Ukraine was poised to declare a state of emergency as it prepares to defend against an expected Russian invasion. (Washington Post)

A Georgia jury finds the three killers of Ahmaud Arbery guilty of hate crimes. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty files paperwork to vie for the state Senate seat being vacated by Harriette Chandler. (Worcester Telegram

State Auditor candidates Chris Dempsey and Sen. Diana DiZoglio outline their positions in separate appearances with Jim Braude. (GBH)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly will spend $700 million on a new genetic medicine research center in the Fort Point Channel section of Boston. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

The Cummings Family Foundation is giving $12.5 million to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, the largest gift ever received by the private two-year Boston college, which has been renamed the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology. (Boston Globe

Outgoing Boston school superintendent Brenda Cassellius could head out the door with as much as $311,000, the Boston Herald says

As more and more colleges close or merge, there is growing concern that higher education is becoming less diverse in its offerings and more conformist. (GBH)

TRANSPORTATION

A Littleton startup is working on technology that it says would make drunken driving impossible. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Genoveva Andrade, who served as chief of staff to former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, has entered into a plea deal with federal prosecutors to avoid jail time in the corruption case the two were charged in. (Herald News)

MEDIA

The Washington Post creates a new “democracy team.” (Washington Post)

Dan Kennedy compiles a list of local news projects in Massachusetts. (Media Nation)