Springfield City Council Sues Mayor Sarno Over Police Commission

Oct 2, 2020

Updated at 2:00 p.m.

The Springfield City Council is officially suing Mayor Domenic Sarno, as it seeks to reestablish the city's police commission.

The council twice — in 2016 and 2018 — passed ordinances doing so, and overrode the mayor's veto both times.

But Sarno refused to appoint members to the panel, arguing the measure violates the city charter.

Attorney Tom Lesser, representing the council pro bono, disagreed.

"The City Council, under the Springfield charter, clearly has the right to reorganize departments," Lesser said. "In this case, it's reorganized the authority over the police department."

Lesser said the mayor was wrong to simply ignore the ordinance.

"Sarno, at that point, should have brought a lawsuit, asking the court to declare the ordinance illegal," Lesser said. "He didn't do that. He simply has pretended it didn't exist."

The city's previous police commission was dissolved in 2005 by a state-imposed financial control board, which put the department in the hands of a sole commissioner. But high-profile incidents of police brutality, financial settlements over officers' behavior, indictments and a scathing report from the Department of Justice have led the City Council to push for a change. 

"We believe strongly that dissolving the Police Commission was a mistake, and many of us have been saying so for over a decade," said an op-ed piece signed by 10 city councilors explaining their reasoning for the lawsuit, which was distributed to media outlets Thursday. "We believe that reinstating a Police Commission of five members would create more transparency and accountability." 

The council voted in June to retain legal counsel to explore its legal options, and this week authorized Lesser and fellow attorney Michael Aleo to file suit.

In June, the mayor said it would be unfortunate if councilors pursued legal action, but expressed confidence in his position.

"If a legal matter comes forward, I have strong confidence in my law department, headed by City Solicitor Ed Pikula, but we're not doing anything that is illegal or at all," Sarno said at the time. "We're following the charter."

Sarno is named as the sole defendant in the lawsuit, which Lesser said will be filed in Hampden Superior Court on Friday.

The outside attorney representing Sarno, Michael Angelini, expressed confidence in the mayor's position, and called the City Council's proposal "bad public policy."