Police Commission Scramble

City councilors race mayor on issue of police oversight.

By Maureen Turner

The Springfield City Council is just two meetings into its new term, but it’s already taken on one of the thorniest issues in city government: a proposal to reinstate a Police Commission.
Making things even thornier: Mayor Domenic Sarno has said that, should the Council approve a Commission, he’ll veto it when it comes to his desk.

The effort to establish a Commission was slowed down last week, when councilors opted to send the proposal to committee rather than give it the first of three required votes of approval. Whether that move was prompted by a sincere desire to give the ordinance careful consideration or was a political strategy to help Sarno negate the effort, it certainly could help achieve the latter: if the mayor appoints a replacement for soon-to-retire Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet before the ordinance comes to a final City Council vote, the Police Commission effort would be rendered moot.

At their Feb. 3 meeting, councilors considered a proposed ordinance that would create a five-member Police Commission charged with overseeing policy, personnel decisions and discipline in the Springfield Police Department. The members would be appointed by the mayor and would be unpaid.
Springfield had a Police Commission in the past, but it was disbanded in 2006, which paved the way for the removal of then-Chief Paula Meara. The chief’s position became a single commissioner position, outside the Civil Service system. The city also created a civilian advisory board; critics, however, have dismissed that body as toothless window dressing.

Council President Mike Fenton, a sponsor of the ordinance (along with Zaida Luna, Melvin Edwards, E. Henry Twiggs, Orlando Ramos and Bud Williams), said the most compelling reason to reinstate the Police Commission is government transparency. “A Police Commission make its decisions in the light of day, not the darkness of night,” he said, with its work (excepting certain personnel matters that, by law, would be handled in executive session) subject to open meeting and public record laws.

“It increases transparency and the opportunity for the public to have insight into how these decisions are made, when they’re made, and encourages a public process for all of this,” Fenton said.
Fenton offered what he called a “perfect example” of why the current system doesn’t work: Sarno’s recent announcement that, upon the retirement of Fitchet, whose contract expires in June, he won’t launch a national search for a replacement but instead will select a successor from one of the SPD’s three deputy chiefs. Like others in the city, Fenton questions limiting the candidate pool so dramatically; while he think the three deputies “would all do an excellent job,” he said, the city nonetheless would benefit from casting a wide net for applicants.

Beyond that, Fenton said, Sarno’s move has a behind-closed-doors quality that is neither fair nor forthcoming. For instance, he said, Sarno “must have had private discussions with some of [the deputy chiefs] beforehand, at least to know that they were interested. That’s not the way to do it.”
Fenton added that he doesn’t want to strip powers from the mayor, who, as the city’s chief executive, bears ultimate responsibility for public safety. Under the proposed ordinance, he noted, the mayor would have sole authority for appointing—and, if he chooses, replacing—Commission members.

The Advocate contacted Sarno’s office requesting a statement from or interview with the mayor, but received no reply. In a recent interview with the Springfield Republican, Sarno vowed to veto the ordinance, saying, “The buck stops with me. …Let the professionals run the department. Let’s take the politics out of it.”


Pot Dispensary Operators Named

F ollowing a strenuous, expensive process for companies hoping to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, 20 licenses have been awarded by the state, with several former politicians among the winners. More licenses are expected to be awarded by the summer, since state law provides for the establishment of 35 dispensaries.

No licenses were awarded for Springfield, Western Massachusetts’ largest city. But a company whose principals are familiar as players in Springfield area politics won a license to operate a dispensary in Holyoke. The company is Debilitating Medical Condition Treatment Centers, Inc., started up by ex-state senator Brian Lees, social service agency head and businessman Heriberto Flores, who wields much power informally in the city’s North End, and Mary Frey, wife of former Hampden County District Attorney Bill Bennett. (Bennett, who is clerk of that corporation, actively opposed decriminalization of marijuana in 2008, when he was still district attorney.)

In eastern Massachusetts, former Democratic U.S. Rep. William Delahunt received a permit to set up three marijuana dispensaries, one each in Plymouth, Taunton and Mashpee. Delahunt’s application brought protest last month from the state Republican Party and a demand—not heeded by Gov. Deval Patrick—that an independent commission award the licenses rather than the state Department of Public Health, whose head, Cheryl Bartlett, is a friend of Delahunt’s.

A former politician from Western Massachusetts who did not win a permit in this round was ex-state senator Andrea F. Nuciforo of Pittsfield, a principal in Kind Medical Inc. together with Dr. Joseph P. Keenan of Westfield, an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Nuciforo and Keenan had hoped to open a dispensary in Easthampton.

After months of debate by local officials and residents of Franklin County towns about whether to permit pot dispensaries, and what kinds of terms could be imposed on their owners—South Deerfield, for example, was hoping to get funding for two new police officers from a dispensary operator—Franklin County was one of four counties left out when the permits were awarded, though it may get a dispensary at a later date.

This round of permitting saw two dispensaries approved for the four Western Massachusetts counties: the one to be run by Debilitating Medical Condition Treatment Centers in Holyoke, and in Northampton, a dispensary to be operated by New England Treatment Access, Inc. That dispensary will be housed in the old Pro Corp building in Florence that’s also headquarters to Tapestry Health. Kevin Fisher, president of New England Treatment, is also an owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies, which bills itself as “the first dispensary in Northwest Colorado,” where it opened in 2009. New England Treatment expects to be selling marijuana by August.

The state created a pay-to-play process in which applicants had to show their ability to raise half a million dollars at the start and pay the state a non-refundable fee of $1,500 to be considered. That was followed by a $30,000 payment for those who entered the second phase of vetting. Those whose companies go into operation will have to pay the state $50,000 a year plus a $500 annual registration fee for each employee.•


Fair Enough

Whatever you need, this fair has something for you. It’s the Community Resources Fair at the First Congregational Church in Amherst this Saturday, February 15.

Certified counselors will be on hand to help you sign up for MassHealth or another health coverage program through the state’s Health Connector. People from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts will answer questions about how to apply for food stamps (SNAP). Have questions about the homeless shelter network? Ask Amherst Community Connections. Information about support for people with mental illness and their families will be supplied by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you didn’t know the Valley had a free (or sliding scale) medical clinic, check out the Community Health Center of Franklin County. For information about reproductive health and needle exchange, chat with someone from Tapestry Health.

Learn what’s available from the other participating organizations, and get your blood pressure checked on the spot by AEIOU (AEIOU Occupational and Urgent Healthcare LLC). Take advantage of all these resources without having to go to a dozen different places; just go to the dining room downstairs in the First Congregational Church, 165 Main Street, Amherst, between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. February 15.• —SK


Public Option Booster Gets a MoveOn

Massachusetts Sen. Jamie Eldridge is determined to get a public health care option for Massachusetts. Now he’s using MoveOn to help.

For years, Eldridge, of Acton, has urged that Massachusetts follow Vermont’s example and develop a single-payer system. Short of that goal, Eldridge—with support from a few other legislators, including Reps. Ben Swan of Springfield and Ellen Story of Amherst—has been pushing for a public option to be added to Massachusetts’ existing nearly-universal health insurance program. Last year, he failed to get enough support in the state Senate to get it off the ground.

Now Eldridge, a member of MoveOn himself, has gotten more than 600 signatures on a MoveOn petition he plans to present to his fellow senators to keep their feet to the fire. Signing on are people from Longmeadow, Belchertown, Ashfield, Williamsburg, Bernardston, Montague, Williamstown, Westfield and North Hadley as well as supporters from other parts of the state.

On the petition and in past public statements, Eldridge has pointed out that 70 percent of the insurance market in Massachusetts is controlled by three companies (the companies, not named by Eldridge, are Blue Cross Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan; in 2010 and 2011, the three also had the highest average premiums). A public option, he says, would bring about real competition and benefit consumers by operating “without excessive administrative and marketing costs, high executive salaries or a need to generate profits.”• —SK


Golf Course Operator Tees Off Abutters

The honeymoon between the town of Hampden and the new owners of the Hampden Country Club was over not long after it started. But the family that bought the club less than two years ago is still vowing to make it a local showplace.

The Antonacci family, owners of Sonny’s Place—a recreation venue in Somers, Conn.—and principals in Somers Sanitation/USA Hauling and Recycling, bought the country club in 2012 for $1.4 million after TD Bank had put a lien on it for $1.6 million. The new owners’ way of improving the course brought a fine of $115,860 from the state Department of Environmental Protection last October, after the DEP found that the club had altered wetlands significantly without obtaining state and federal permits. The club, the DEP charged, had disturbed wetland areas with construction equipment, tampered with existing ponds, moved parts of Watchaug Brook into a pipe, and filled in wetlands.

In addition to levying the fine, the state ordered the club to restore the altered wetlands.

The club also removed mature trees that had been part of a buffer zone between the perimeter of the golf course and abutting private properties, violating a local ordinance of 40 years’ standing that requires a 100-foot buffer between the golf course and private yards. The buffer protected neighboring properties from straying golf balls, and from incidental noise and intrusion. The club extended the golf course to neighbors’ property lines and replaced the trees with earthen berms. In reaction, the abutters organized, forming a group called the Hampden Country Club Buffer Committee.

On Jan. 28, at a meeting packed with abutters, Hampden’s Zoning Board of Appeals disapproved the club’s plan for redesigning the golf course, a plan that had previously been approved by the town’s Planning Board. Two weeks earlier, a group of abutters had filed suit against the club to force it to restore the landscaping in the buffer zone. After the ZBA ruled against the club, however, both sides said they would decide how to proceed after receiving a written decision from the ZBA.

The Advocate was unable to reach a spokesman for the abutters for comment, but Hampden Country Club referred us to its attorney, Seth N. Stratton of Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law in Longmeadow, who sent a prepared statement from HCC spokesman Jonathan Murray. The statement affirms that the club is “committed to working cooperatively with state and local officials, as well as our neighbors, to address any concerns they may have. The support we have received over the past two years from residents of Hampden and nearby communities has been truly gratifying.” It adds that the club’s operators “will work tirelessly to create a destination that the Town of Hampden and the entire region can be proud of.”• —SK