| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – Former Police Chief Paula Meara told City Councilors as a police chief who had to lead the Police Department under the system of a Police Commission she is in support of the present way the city manages its officers.
Meara was among those who attended a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Nov. 21. There was no vote to recommend the ordinance by the end of the 90-minute meeting.
The controversy about achieving greater civilian oversight over the Springfield Police department continued at the meeting. Before the committee was a proposed ordinance that would return a Police Commission to the city to govern the Police Department and overturn the present system that includes a police commissioner appointed by the mayor who is responsible for discipline and a Civilian Review Board that can investigate and conducts hearings.
The proposed ordinance, though, is in conflict with the city’s charter, City Solicitor Edward Pikula told council members in attendance including Thomas Ashe, Kenneth Shea, Bud Williams, Adam Gomez, Marcus Williams, Orlando Ramos and Timothy Allen.
Pikula said, “The charter is clear, the mayor has the power [to appoint officials.]”
Pikula added while he understood the City Council is “rightly concerned” about recent incidences of police misconduct it does not have the power to add new positions. He explained that even if the council cut the funding for the police commissioner in the next budget, it cannot add budgeting for a new position such as a police chief.
Pikula advised the councilors to “try to figure out how best to move forward with improvements.”
Williams accused Pikula with a conflict of interest as he was representing the position of Mayor Domenic Sarno.
“No, I’m representing the city,” Pikula replied.
Williams asserted the council needs its own independent attorney for this matter. He later said the courts might need to decide if the charter truly prevents the City Council from making this change.
Noting that Police Commissioner John Barbieri still has more than two years on his contract, Gomez asked if the discussion about a Police Commission was more appropriate at that time. Pikula said that nothing was preventing a discussion at any time.
Ashe stressed that no one was suggesting that Barbieri isn’t doing a good job.
Ashe added that under the previous system with a Police Commission, he used “to see cops at political fundraisers” as a means to ensure promotion.
At the request of Marcus Williams, Pikula explained the Police Commission came about through a special act in 1909. When in 1960 the current charter was adopted, all special acts that conflicted with the charter were voided, but the ordinance that created the Police Commission remained until the Finance Control Board came into power during the Ryan Administration and created the system.
Pikula reminded the councilors that under the previous system, the police chief could only impose a five-day suspension as discipline. All hirings, firings and disciplinary actions were the responsibility of the Police Commission.
Sarno gave the Civilian Review Board that was also created at that time broader powers, Pikula added.
Barbieri said that as a 29 year-veteran of the Springfield Police Department he saw the Police Commission as “very politicalized” and “very divisive.”
He noted that Meara “came in as a reform chief and she was completely stymied [by the Police Commission].”
Barbieri noted the number of disciplinary decisions he has made, including two terminations, and said he has taken more such action than the old Police Commission.
In terms of promoting greater transparency, Barbieri cautioned that he and other officers couldn’t talk about personnel matters.
Marcus Williams said the announcement the Police Department was going to use encrypted radios that bypassed conventional scanners came out shortly after the most recent controversy concerning the actions of Det. Gregg Bigda.
The timing, Williams said “was like pouring salt on a burn.”
Barbieri said the city was under a federal mandate to switch to modern digital equipment to help ensure officer safety and did supply receivers to local media sources so they could continue monitoring police broadcasts.
Barbieri said that he has never overruled any decision from the Civilian Review Board and in fact has “gone above and beyond” their recommendations.
Shea said changing back to a Police Commission “would be crippling for whoever is heading the department.”