Between the Lines: Sarno Defies Fenton

The protracted battle between Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and a group of city councilors over the leadership of the Springfield Police Department came to an end last week—or, at least, a temporary halt.

On March 19, Sarno announced that he had selected SPD Deputy Chief John Barbieri to succeed current Police Commissioner William Fitchet when the latter retires at the end of May. In his announcement, the mayor praised Barbieri as “a progressive and innovative leader who has the command and respect of the department. More importantly, he understands and respects the mosaic and fabric of the people of Springfield.”

Barbieri, a 26-year veteran of the SPD, has been a deputy chief for five years and has worked in the street crimes and anti-gang units, among other areas.

City Council President Michael Fenton and other councilors had asked Sarno to hold off on naming Fitchet’s replacement until they had a chance to vote on a proposal before them that would have replaced the department’s one-commissioner structure with a five-member citizens’ Police Commission, appointed by the mayor, that would oversee hiring, discipline and other personnel matters in the SPD. Sarno, who opposed the Police Commission model, said he would veto the ordinance if it reached his desk. His Law Department, meanwhile, said that the City Council lacked the legal authority to revive the Police Commission model, which the city previously had, without the mayor’s consent.

Councilors who supported the Police Commission proposal had hoped to vote on the matter before Sarno named his new commissioner; Fenton even scheduled a special meeting for last Friday to vote on the ordinance. That became a moot issue, however, after Sarno beat the Council to the punch by naming Barbieri to the post.

Sarno has also been criticized by some councilors and members of the public for the narrow, private way he conducted his search for Fitchet’s replacement. Earlier this year, the mayor had announced that he would choose his new commissioner from the SPD’s three deputy chiefs rather than open the position to a wider pool of candidates. A few days before Sarno announced his decision, the heads of the Springfield NAACP, Arise for Social Justice and the Council of Churches publicly criticized one of the three candidates, Deputy Chief Robert McFarlin, accusing him of “a long history of insensitivity toward communities of color and women”—charges McFarlin denied.

With his selection of Barbieri, Sarno sidesteps the rocky reception McFarlin would have received from his critics had he won the job. Nonetheless, the mayor still faces some criticism for his handling of the matter: “While the process was flawed [t]he best candidate of the 3 was chosen,” Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards said on Facebook after the Barbieri announcement, adding that the “fight for [a] Police Commission will continue.”

That sentiment was seconded by Fenton, who congratulated Barbieri on his new position but added, “We hoped for more patience and transparency in this process.”

While he cancelled last Friday’s special meeting, Fenton said that the City Council is not done debating the issue of the Police Commission, with the goal of reviving it when Barbieri’s contract expires.•

Author: Maureen Turner

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