The freak tornado that hit Springfield June 1 had one bright side, at least for Mayor Domenic Sarno: it created lots of opportunities for him to show up in the media, reaching out to affected residents and vowing to help them get back on their feet.
And while I’m not suggesting that the mayor welcomed such a devastating event—so save the offended emails—it would be naïve to pretend that Sarno didn’t enjoy a public-opinion boost in the days and weeks after the storm. Indeed, the Springfield Republican, in its recent endorsement of the incumbent, cites Sarno’s response to the tornado as one reason he deserves re-election.
Last weekend’s freak snowstorm—and, notably, the subsequent long-term power losses—don’t appear to be serving Sarno as well. As Springfield residents have faced day after day in dark, cold homes, criticism has mounted of the administration’s efforts to get the city cleaned up, lighted up, and generally up and running again.
Sarno, meanwhile, has aimed his criticism at Western Mass. Electric, for not restoring power to the city faster. Earlier this week, the mayor held a press conference to announce that he had been in “constant contact” with upper management at WMECO—and made it clear that he wasn’t happy with them. “The resources that have been devoted to the City of Springfield, the largest community affected, have not been sufficient and therefore the job is not getting done,” Sarno said. “I am becoming increasingly frustrated by WMECO’s response. Utility companies are never hesitant to have rate increases, however, residents need services and it’s now time for them to perform.
“I thank the residents of Springfield for their ongoing patience and resiliency and assure them that I will not tolerate this type of response,” the mayor added. Yesterday, Sarno followed up with an announcement that he’s asked Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate WMECO’s response to the storm.
One Springfield resident who is not impressed with Sarno’s latest post-storm performance: City Council President José Tosado, who happens to be his opponent in next Tuesday’s mayoral election.
“Mayor Sarno doesn’t mind taking credit for the good stuff,” Tosado charged in a campaign release. “But when something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault.
“No doubt WMECO’s slow response made a bad situation worse. But the Mayors DPW and Parks Department let residents down, too. Roads were not pre-treated, and even major roadways were left unplowed and blocked by trees days after the storm. As of yesterday, traffic signals at thirty intersections were still not functional,” Tosado continued.
Tosado also accused Sarno of milking the tornado for political advantage. WMECO’s response in that case, Tosado said, “was truly outstanding. … But the Mayor made sure the spotlight was only on him, generating more photo ops and free media exposure that any amount of campaign contributions could buy.”
Sarno’s criticism of the utility “is just the latest example of the mayor avoiding responsibility,” went on Tosado, accusing Sarno for failing to be a strong leader on issues ranging from violent crime to the wood-burning power plant proposed in East Springfield to the recent audit showing rampant fraud at Putnam high school.
Meanwhile, a third municipal candidate has a different response to the post-storm fiasco: Orlando Ramos, who is challenging John Lysak for the Ward 8 City Council seat, suggests that the city consider creating a public utility, similar to those in Holyoke and Chicopee, to ensure better response time in the future.
“WMECO has failed us miserably!” Ramos said in a press release. “It’s not a coincidence that a City like Holyoke—which has publicly-owned gas and electricity—had a much quicker response time than other communities.” A city utility would also result in reduced costs to ratepayers, he contended.
“This is not something that is going to happen overnight; but I think it certainly does warrant a comprehensive study. I would support the creation of [a] special commission to evaluate the pros and cons of having a publicly-owned power company,” Ramos said.