The Challenge — and Opportunity — for Domenic Sarno

Charles Ryan is living proof that being mayor of a city under the auspices of a finance control board doesn’t insulate one from the intricacies of politics.

Ryan didn’t invent the city’s controversial trash fee in his basement, and he didn’t recruit Ed Flynn to apply to be police commissioner, implore him to take the job, or go seek the Milwaukee police chief’s position just over a year after coming to Springfield.

But Ryan was saddled with all that, and this is part of the reason why, come mid-January, he will once again be ‘former’ mayor of Springfield. Domenic Sarno, who defeated Ryan last month, should take note of all this, but we’re not exactly sure just what the lessons are — other than, as we said, the control board’s presence doesn’t make an elected mayor Teflon-coated.

Still, the board does provide a sort of buffer zone between the mayor and the voting public, in that the board takes most of the heat from the citizenry for things like the trash fee — or at least it should — and that the panel is, in effect, running the city. Thus, Sarno doesn’t face the usual pressure that newly elected officials encounter when it comes to making good on campaign promises.

For example, Sarno can lobby to remove the trash fee, and if the control board does, he’s a hero. If not, well, at least he tried. The same goes for public safety issues, a widely supported call to give the police commissioner’s job directly to Deputy Chief William Fitchet (Sarno backed that plan, but the board voted 3-2 for an open search), and other matters.

So Sarno is in a somewhat enviable position as he takes on what is a rather large challenge — getting Springfield ready for a return to self-governance. We have some advice for him and his transition team in that regard.

  • First, keep the control board right where it is. We’ve said this a thousand times, and we’ll say it again: everyone wants Springfield to be self-governed, but it is not yet ready for that step. There is still work to be done on public safety, education, economic development, and institutionalizing changes in how things are done here. The individuals who have achieved progress in these areas should be allowed to continue their work (it won’t ever really be finished).
  • Avoid cronyism and the influence peddlers. Perhaps the best thing about the control board’s influence is that a good measure of cronyism has been removed, and there is, or should be, more confidence that those running Springfield are appointing people because of what they know, not who they know or who they supported in the mayoral race. Likewise, there should be more confidence that steps are being taken because they are in the best interests of the city, not because they benefit one group or individual. There can be no backsliding on this matter.
  • Follow the ULI blueprint: Considerable time, effort, and money went into the Urban Land Institute’s report on Springfield, which identified some immediate priorities, including re-use of the federal building downtown, revitalizing the Court Square area, sparking investments in the South End, and finding new uses for the old York Street Jail and Chapman Valve properties. These are worthwhile undertakings, and the city should maintain focus on them.
  • Support the proposed change to how Springfield is governed. Why wouldn’t he? The plan calls for lengthening the mayor’s term from two to four years and hiking the salary to $150,000 (a 50% raise). But it also calls for appointment of a chief administrative officer, and this means sharing power. This can be done, and we believe it should be done.
  • Continue to accentuate the positive. All is far from being right with Springfield, but the picture is brighter than it was a few years ago, and it’s time to let the world know that. Money is tight, but some should be found to aggressively market Springfield, and continue the work undertaken over the past few months to put a positive spin on the City of Homes and convince many different audiences that this is a great place to live, work, and operate a business.

These are just a few suggestions for Sarno and his team, which, as we said, faces a stern set of challenges — but also has a great opportunity to move Springfield forward.</