SPRINGFIELD MAY BE one of the Massachusetts cities with a “strong mayor” form of government, but the mayor’s extensive powers over city government are not unlimited powers.  

That was the clear message in a Supreme Judicial Court ruling issued on Tuesday that represented a strong rebuke to Mayor Domenic Sarno, who had claimed unilateral power over the city’s police department, which has been mired in controversy and the focus of community criticism.

More than 100 years ago, in 1902, the Springfield City Council established a five-member commission, whose members were chosen by the mayor, to oversee the police department and hire a police chief. Fast forward to 2004 and the Legislature put the fiscally-teetering city under the management of a finance control board, which assumed all power over city government. Among other moves, the board eliminated the police commission and put the police department under the sole control of a commissioner, appointed by the mayor. 

With the city’s fiscal health improving, the finance board was dissolved in 2009, and a decade later, in 2018, the city council approved – and overrode Sarno’s veto of – an ordinance restoring the five-member police commission that was in place prior to 2004. But Sarno balked at reconstituting the commission, arguing that it infringed on his executive powers as mayor. 

The council took the issue to court, arguing that the mayor may have broad power to run the city, but the city charter gives it power to reconstitute city departments. A Superior Court judge agreed, and the SJC upheld that ruling in its decision this week. 

“We conclude that the city council may so reorganize the police department, based on the plain language of the relevant statutes and city ordinances,” the court said, in a decision authored by Justice Scott Kafker. 

The SJC said there remains some uncertainty over whether the five-member oversight commission or the mayor has authority to name the new police chief, an issue that the court said it would not weigh in on in this case. Under either scenario, however, since the mayor names members of the commission, the court pointed out that the mayor’s power to “influence, if not control, the selection of any police chief is significant.” 

That said, City Council President Marcus Williams hailed the ruling as a victory. “I’m elated by the decision,” said Williams, who called it a “landmark” case in affirming the powers maintained by a city’s legislative branch, even under a “strong mayor” city charter that invests a lot of authority in a city’s mayor. Williams also said he hopes the new five-member police commission will bring a needed community perspective to the police department.  

“We thought all along it was a clear-cut case,” said Michael Aleo, a Northampton lawyer who represented the city council in the case along with his law partner, Thomas Lesser. 

Sarno, who was first elected in 2007 and is now Springfield’s longest serving mayor, acknowledged the ruling and said he’s ready to move forward. The SJC “determined that the City Council has the right to require me to appoint a Board of Police Commissioners. I accept that responsibility,” Sarno said in a statement. 

The battle over police oversight comes as cities across the country grapple with calls for police reform, particularly in relation to departments’ dealings with communities of color. The SJC framed its decision in this light in the opening line of its ruling. “As cities across the country consider changes to their police departments to ensure greater accountability, control over these decisions can be hotly contested, as it is in the instant case,” the decision began. 

Police accountability has been a particularly salient issue in Springfield, whose police department was the subject of a scathing 2020 report by the Department of Justice documenting a long history of use of excessive force by its narcotics unit. 

Sarno indicated that Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood will continue to lead the department under the return to a five-member police commission. Williams, the city council president, said the reorganization with a new oversight commission would be a good time for a fresh start with a new police leader who can strengthen police-community relations. 

All of which suggests the court ruling may have settled the question of the department’s structure, but the debate will continue over the department’s policies and practices.