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National News

Sarno's legal battle over the Springfield Police Commission cost the city $87,777.17

  A Springfield police car at a crime scene.
File photo
/
MassLive / MassLive.com
A Springfield police car at a crime scene.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno's unsuccessful effort to block an ordinance requiring civilian oversight of the police department has cost the city nearly $90,000 in legal fees.

In 2020, the City Council sued Sarno for refusing to appoint a five-member commission overseeing Springfield's troubled police department.

The council obtained outside legal representation when Northampton attorneys Michael Aleo and Tom Lesser took on the case for free.

The mayor also took on outside lawyers — for a price. A legal team led by attorney Michael Angelini from the Worcester firm Bowditch & Dewey represented Sarno. According to invoices obtained by NEPM (PDF) through a public records request, the meter started running July 23, 2020, as the City Council was considering legal action.

 A portion of a February 2021 invoice received by the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, for legal services.
Screen shot
/
NEPM
A portion of a February 2021 invoice received by the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, for legal services.

Once the lawsuit was filed at the beginning of October, the mayor’s attorneys began preparing their defense. They billed for meetings with Sarno and the city’s legal department, as well as research and the drafting of legal documents. There was also a $65 mileage charge for a trip to Springfield to meet with the mayor.

A hearing was held in Hampden Superior Court on January 19, 2021, with Judge Francis Flannery releasing his decision April 16, which found for the council. Through April 12, Bowditch & Dewey had billed the city for $58,757.75.

Sarno decided to appeal, and the case was taken up by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. That meant more work for the law firm, which had to prepare the necessary documents and get ready for oral arguments scheduled for early December.

As he did before the lower court, Angelini argued the City Council didn't have the right to change how the police department was governed.

"They could do a lot of things, but what they cannot do is to infringe, impact, minimize, dilute the mayor's power as chief executive to determine who is going to be the head of the Springfield Police Department," Angelini told the justices.

In February, the SJC delivered the mayor's legal position a final blow, ruling for the City Council.

The appeal cost the city nearly $30,000. All told, the outside legal fees added up to $87,777.17, and Sarno was still forced to appoint members to the police commission. The total does not include staff time spent on the case by lawyers in the city's legal department.

"My thought is that it's wasteful but par for the course," said Springfield City Councilor Justin Hurst, a frequent Sarno critic.

Hurst said the fact the mayor appealed after losing in Superior Court showed Sarno didn't care how much taxpayer money was spent.

"And I think anybody who knows the mayor certainly knows that on the issues of power he is going to try to retain as much as he possibly can, even if it's to the detriment of the community," Hurst said. "In this particular case, it was."

The council's attorney, Lesser, said he and Aleo did not keep track of how many hours they spent on the case, since they were absorbing all costs.

Sarno's spokesperson did not respond to requests in recent weeks for comment. Neither did Springfield's city solicitor.

In a statement issued last month after the SJC decision came down, the mayor said the ruling did not diminish his ability to appoint a day-to-day leader of the police department — and that he was keeping Cheryl Clapprood, then commissioner and now superintendent, in that role.

"We will work within the guidance of the decision and under the prevailing statutes and laws of the Commonwealth, and prevailing ordinances of the City of Springfield, to comply with the decision and to maintain the high standards of public safety," Sarno said.

The city was charged by its attorneys to help prepare that statement, too. An invoice lists a $373.81 charge to review the SJC ruling, and meet with the mayor and others to discuss the decision and a press release.

Sam Hudzik contributed to this report.

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