The Springfield City Council has voted to authorize a lawsuit seeking to force Mayor Domenic Sarno to appoint a police board of commissioners. It's the latest turn in a years-long disagreement between the council and mayor over control of the police department amid reports of officer brutality and corruption.
Sarno has ignored several ordinances passed by the council establishing a police commission. He has said the ordinances violate the city charter and wants the department to continue to be led by a single commissioner.
The order said the council, in consultation with its attorneys, has "concluded that necessary legal action must be taken to bring the administration into compliance with the city ordinances."
Only Councilor Sean Curran voted against the order, noting the city had a police commission years ago. Curran said it didn't work.
"The strong commissioner model is still the best way to ensure that we have a department that keeps our city safe, while — at the same time — remaining accountable to the residents of the city of Springfield," Curran said.
The order authorizes Northampton attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo to "file litigation...seeking enforcement" of the police commission ordinance. Lesser and Aleo offered their services for free.
The council's government attorney is City Solicitor Ed Pikula, although he also represents the mayor and has backed Sarno's opposition to a police commission.
"Because the City Council does not have our own attorney who isn’t beholden to the Mayor, we have been unable to resolve this legal question for years," Council President Justin Hurst said in a press release. "Thankfully, we now have pro-bono legal counsel willing to litigate this issue on our behalf and through it all, a City Council who has remained steadfast in their desire to ensure a balance of power in our local government continues to exist."
The mayor's spokesman did not answer a request for comment Tuesday evening. In recent weeks, Sarno has highlighted changes at the police department following a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media on Sept. 29, 2020.