Mayor Domenic Sarno may have created a new police review board last week, but that doesn’t mean the City Council is done with the matter.
Tonight, the Council will consider a proposal by Councilor Jimmy Ferrera to create a Civilian Police Oversight Commission, similar to the old Police Commission, which was disbanded in 2004. The commission was eventually replaced with a civilian review board that had virtually no power. In the wake of the recent Melvin Jones case of alleged police brutality, there’s been increased public and political pressure for the city to create a board with some teeth.
But to critics of the plan, Sarno’s new board is still too weak to be effective. Perhaps the most significant difference between Ferrera’s proposal and the Community Police Discipline Board created by Sarno, via executive order: Under Ferrera’s version, the board members would have the power to discipline officers; under the mayor’s, the members would make recommendations to Police Commissioner William Fitchet, who would retain the ultimate disciplinary power. Ferrera’s plan also calls for members to be nominated by the mayor but subject to approval by the City Council. Sarno’s plan gives that power entirely to the mayor.
Ferrera’s plan will likely meet resistance from the administration; City Solicitor Ed Pikula has already said that to take disciplinary powers from Fitchet and give them to a citizens’ board would be a violation of the commissioner’s contract. Nonetheless, the councilor’s plan has gained public support, including from two camps one doesn’t normally think of as in accord: This afternoon, Ferrera has planned a press conference to announce that his proposal is supported by both the Rev. Talbert Swan II, a long-time activist for police accountability, and the patrol officers’ union.
“I’m not going to criticize the mayor’s proposal,” Ferrera told the Advocate last week. “I just believe the proposal I’m bringing back is more effective and is more transparent.” Sarno’s proposal, he added, “has no authority, no accountability, no transparency.”
Ferrera said he expects discussion at tonight’s meeting will result in some amendments to his plan. City Councilor Tim Rooke, meanwhile, told the Advocate he’s considering asking the Council to adopt (under suspension of rules) Sarno’s executive order, so the councilors can tinker with the wording and make the changes they’d like to see .
If the police review board wasn’t a hot enough topic for one meeting, the Council will also take up tonight a proposal sponsored by Rooke to increase the mayor’s salary from its current $95,000, starting after the 2011 election. Rooke hasn’t proposed a new salary figure, but would leave that to be determined after a council subcommittee studies mayoral salaries in other cities.
The salary increase would be the second step in a process, backed by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, to make the mayor’s job more appealing to a stronger field of candidates—specifically, to people who’ve already achieved some success in the business world, and who might be more willing to take a shot at the office if it didn’t mean taking a pay cut. In November, city voters approved a ballot question to increase the mayor’s term from two years to four, also starting with the 2011 election—again, with the idea of making the job appealing to potential candidates who might be unwilling to disrupt their career for the never-ending campaigning and lack of long-term job security that comes with a two-year term
While the term-extension won handily, with the approval of 70 percent of voters, the salary increase will be a much harder sell. Indeed, based on the (admittedly unscientific, but still intriguing) readers’ comments section of a MassLive article on the proposal, Springfield residents could be expected to be overwhelmingly opposed to the plan.
Those negative comments could be divided into one of several categories: There are Sarno critics, who don’t think he deserves a raise (of course, he wouldn’t necessarily get one, unless he win re-election next year). Then there are the Rooke critics, who think he’s looking to boost the salary in advance of his own run for mayor. (I ask Rooke, probably on a monthly basis, if he’s planning to run for mayor. He always says no, citing his professional interests—he’s vice president at a Springfield insurance agency—and his desire to have his weekends free to go to his kids’ baseball games, not make the “rubber chicken dinner” circuit. Not that politicians can’t play coy.)
Perhaps the scariest theory floated by a reader: that Rooke is padding the mayor’s salary in advance of a come-back run by—say it ain’t so—his “buddy,” Mike Albano. Surely Springfield voters couldn’t be as masochistic as to let Albano “lead” their city again? And let’s not forget, not long after he left office, Mike beat town for East Longmeadow.
In the end, perhaps the biggest hurdle Rooke’s proposal will face will be the serious gap between what he’d like to see the mayor earn, and what most Springfield residents earn. Maybe $95,000 doesn’t sound like a lot to a business executive or attorney or other would-be candidate from the top floors of Tower Square. But in a city where the median household income is just under $30,000, it sounds pretty astronomical.