| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – It’s not uncommon for a mayor and a city council to be at odds, but several recent actions of the council have led to exchanges between members of the council and Mayor Domenic Sarno.
Last week Sarno responded with a veto to an ordinance passed by the council that would have brought back a revised Board of Police Commissioners.
He sent out a prepared statement that read in part, “My position has been well defined – keep it professional, not political, and keep it legally sound. The modern day model of a professional police commissioner administering and directing the department is the trend across the country, and has worked well here. This is indicated by the 45 percent reduction of overall crime in the last five years. As we continue to work with our consultant, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the last thing we should do is go backwards to antiquated systems and rules.
“This is also indicated by my conversations with the Executive Director of the Police Education Research Foundation (PERF) Chuck Wexler. Reaching out to this recognized expert in the field of police organization and management, he told me: ‘There is a role for civilians with our Community Police Hearing Board and there is a role for our Police Commissioner. At the end of the day, both entities must be strong.’ This Ordinance does not live up to this advice … The Ordinance would reinstate a weaker model, where a Civil Service Chief of Police is insulated from accountability, and is unable to enforce mandates down the chain of command with the same strong authority that a single Police Commissioner is able to do.”
Sarno concluded, “Springfield is going through enormous changes. It Police Department is under scrutiny of the Department of Justice to investigate whether a Pattern and Practice of Civil Rights violations has occurred. The City has cooperated with the investigation. At the completion of their investigation, it is likely that institutional reforms will be recommended.
“The Springfield Police Department needs to move forward to address the new issues it is likely to face with all of the new economic development achievements that are occurring. It is not a time to rehash the same political squabbles that occurred more than 100 years ago and it is not in the City’s best interest to step back in time to return to a system that was, in the not so distant past, called ‘dysfunctional’ by experts in police administration.
“With these points in mind, I veto this ordinance.”
City Council President Orlando Ramos then issued the following response, “Mayor Sarno is breaking yet another campaign promise just like he did with the trash tax. Mayor Sarno promised the residents of Springfield that he would repeal something when he was a candidate and did something completely different as mayor. In 2008 he was in favor of a police commission. In fact, he made his position clear by stating the following: ‘since the changeover... [from a commission to a single commissioner] the input from the community to the department and the communication from the department to the citizenry have been greatly reduced.’ He goes on to say ‘A lack of community involvement does not make the citizens of Springfield feel safer ... The commissioner and therefore the department, are no longer evaluated or held accountable. The citizen watchdog on police administration does not exist now that the police commission has been abolished.’ (The Republican Newspaper, 2008).
“The truth is that the mayor has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars by keeping the current system in place. The taxpayers have paid out millions of dollars to aggrieved parties because of police misconduct. In the case of [the incident that took place at [Nathan Bill’s], we will be paying for the actions of police officers who were off-duty that assaulted and permanently injured people. With the indictments of Officer Diaz, Detective Bigda and the pending Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, combined with many other cases that have cost the city millions, it’s indisputable at this point that something has to change! It is an insult to the taxpayers that some of these officers remain on the force. The community has lost complete faith in this current system; thus, the Council will move to override the mayor’s veto once again. I would hope that the mayor will follow the law and appoint a commission rather than ignore the law and leave the city susceptible to even more litigation in the future.”
The mayor also went on record about a proposed pay increase for city officials including the council: “Boy, did the City Council really stick it to our taxpayers with a ‘double whammy’ last night. They voted again to become a sanctuary city, and then voted themselves a huge pay increase, by not even following their own review committee’s report recommendation of a much less pay increase.
“The pay raises voted on and passed by the City Council are not fiscally responsible or justified. A $10,000 raise is more than 50 percent than their own study committee recommended. This is a time when we are making every effort to be fiscally responsible and hold the line on city employee contracts, which average about a 2 percent increase a year, is very difficult to justify this exorbitant raise. We must keep in mind that we are public servants and City Councilors serve in a part time capacity. Our number one responsibility is to the taxpayers of Springfield. At this time, I cannot accept in good conscience a one-time $25,000 pay raise, when our employees and taxpayers struggle to make ends meet.”