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City Council's Lawsuit Against Springfield Mayor Sarno Goes Before A Judge

Springfield, Massachusetts, Mayor Domenic Sarno in a file photo. Behind him stands Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.
Adam Frenier
Springfield, Massachusetts, Mayor Domenic Sarno in a file photo. Behind him stands Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has taken under advisement a lawsuit by the Springfield City Council against the mayor in a dispute about police department oversight.

The city council has twice passed ordinances forming a police commission, but Mayor Domenic Sarno has refused to appoint members to it, saying it violates the city charter.

During a court hearing Tuesday, the attorney representing the council told the judge the council has the right to reorganize the police department.

"The mayor cannot ignore, each legislative body has certain rights, it's not a monarchy," Tom Lesser said.

Sarno's attorney argued the ordinance interferes with the mayor's authority to appoint department heads, as is spelled out in the city's charter. 

"There is — as I've said, and I'll say it one more time — no basis in the statute, no basis in any case law," Michael Angelini said. "There's no case that's been advanced that's suggested they can do this."

Judge Francis Flannery will rule on each side's request for a summary judgement. 

The case was heard virtually by Flannery, who was sitting at Hampden Superior Court. 

Springfield had a commission overseeing the police until 2005, when a state-imposed control board decided a single commissioner should be in charge. Through the years, some city councilors tried to reestablish the commission, and in 2016, the council voted to do just that.

Sarno vetoed the measure, saying it went against the city charter. The council overrode the veto, but the mayor didn't take any action.

The same situation played out in 2018 when the council passed a similar law. Last September, the council voted to authorize legal action. It took on pro bono legal counsel earlier in 2020 to review its options.

The lawsuit and question over police oversight comes as the city's police department has been at the center of controversy. Springfield has paid millions to settle police brutality and misconduct claims in recent years. Officers have faced criminal indictments for their actions — more than a few caught on video. And the U.S. Justice Department has released a scathing report about the department's narcotics division.

Reform at the Springfield Police Department rose to the forefront again last summer, as protests seeking racial justice and changes to policing took place in the city and across the country. That was after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. 

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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