City Council of Springfield v. Mayor of Springfield

One of the most hotly contested issues across the nation right now is police accountability in wake of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter shining light on abuses by police in certain high-profile matters, notably toward communities of color. On December 6, 2021 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in on this issue when they issued a decision in City Council of Springfield v. Mayor of Springfield.

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In Springfield, the central issue was whether the mayor or the city council had the authority to change the structure of the local police department. The city council had initiated a reform to replace the single police commissioner with a board of five police commissioners to ensure greater transparency and accountability for police conduct in 2018. The reform effort was roadblocked by Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno, who vetoed the city council’s efforts and refused to implement the ordinance even once the city council mustered to override Sarno’s veto.

After this, the council sued Mayor Sarno to compel him to implement the ordinance. The superior court found for the council, stating that virtually all of provisions of the council’s plan were valid, save for an eligibility requirement, preventing the appointment of current city employees to the police commissioner board. The mayor appealed, and the matter was brought to the SJC.

On review, the SJC focused on the language in MA G. L. c. 43, § 5, which provides that city councils have the authority to “reorganize, consolidate or abolish departments, in whole or in part.” The plain meaning of this statute, the court said, gave the city council the authority to amend the structure of the police department. Though the mayor has authority to appoint “all heads of departments and members of municipal boards” under MA G. L. c. 43, § 52, this authority was not disturbed by the restructuring ordinance. “Appoint,” in the view of the court, was to choose someone for a position, regardless of the structure of that position.

Ultimately, the SJC affirmed the ruling of the lower court, and found that the city council’s restructuring ordinance was valid under a plain language review of the relevant statutes.

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