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Silent Dom

Getting the cold shoulder from the mayor of Springfield--again.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008
Heather Brandon photo

When he didn't respond to a phone message or two back in the fall, I didn't think much of it. After all, I knew he was focused on getting a new job, his dream job, and that was probably taking up all of his time and energy.

By January, he'd landed the job. But my phone calls still went unanswered. The first time I called, a woman in his office politely took my message, then responded later with a message from him, one that didn't really answer the questions I was calling to ask. When I pressed to talk to him—not communicate through messages—she told me that wasn't possible.

The next time I called, she simply told me he wasn't unavailable. Now, she just ignores my attempts to reach him. And try as I might, it's getting hard to deny what appears to be happening:

I think the mayor of Springfield is giving me the silent treatment.

 

Domenic Sarno, who was elected in November, is not the first Springfield mayor to decide not to talk to me. During most of his time in office, Mike Albano wouldn't talk to me, or any of my colleagues from the Valley Advocate.

At one point, Albano claimed he wouldn't talk to us because my editor, Tom Vannah, had said on a local radio show that Albano had dodged the draft during Vietnam. (Never mind that Vannah never actually said that.) More likely, Albano's reticence had to do with the barrage of unflattering reporting we did about his administration, right through his decision to step down from office and move to East Longmeadow as the city sat on the brink of financial ruin, and the ensuing federal convictions of a number of his cronies.

Albano's unhappiness with the Advocate predated my hiring at the paper. Reporter Stephanie Kraft, who had covered Springfield city government before I took the beat in the spring of 1996, had long had her suspicions about Albano and the genuineness of his self-described progressivism, going back to his time as a city councilor. So did the Advocate's editors. When I first met Albano, not long after I came to the newspaper and he became mayor, he was friendly and polite, but casually mentioned what seemed to be a sore point: He was surprised, he told me, that the Advocate had endorsed Charlie Ryan, not himself, in the previous fall's election. After all, Albano said, the Advocate was a progressive newspaper, and he was the progressive candidate.

It didn't take long for Albano to realize that we were not really soulmates after all. Not too long into my new job—maybe a year—Albano stopped returning my phone calls; when I spoke to an aide in the mayor's office, he told me Albano had told him to stop sending me the press releases and event announcements that regularly poured out of his office, too.

I'll admit to some initial trepidation about my status as persona non grata. Still relatively new at the beat—still relatively new, in fact, at municipal reporting—I wondered how I could possibly cover City Hall without access to the mayor. It turned out not to be much of a problem after all.

If I had worked at a traditional, daily newspaper, a "paper of record," like the Springfield Republican, Albano's silent treatment would have made my job impossible. Of course, it's worth noting, Albano would never simply refuse to talk to reporters from the Republican: that newspaper, the city's only daily, was a shameless Albano booster. And if the powers-that-be at the Republican ever turned on the mayor, they could bury him more efficiently and effectively than an alternative weekly from Hampshire County ever could.

Lucky for me, I worked for the latter paper. And I soon realized that just because Albano wouldn't talk to me didn't mean I couldn't write about him—which I did, with relish, for the next seven or so years.

It was easier than I'd expected. Some department heads—who either shared his contempt for the Advocate or simply opted not to risk the wrath of the tempestuous mayor—followed his lead and cut off communication with the paper, too. Others remained accessible, whether motivated by simple professionalism or a desire to stick it to their boss. The Advocate got into some tussles with City Hall over access to public documents before Albano's good-guy city solicitor, Peter Fenton, stepped in and enforced that pesky public-records law. And just about every week, I'd put in the requisite call to Albano's office, where one unfailingly polite aide or another would take down my message—or at least, pretend to—for the mayor.

Albano was a love-'im-or-hate-'im kind of guy; as his years in office passed, the hate 'im list grew. And while he might not have wanted to talk to me, his detractors were usually more than happy to. On the City Council, critics like Tim Ryan and Barbara Garvey spoke out about the mounting problems they saw in the Albano administration.

Others voiced their thoughts privately. From unhappy City Hall workers left over from previous administrations to disgruntled former Albano supporters, there were plenty of people who were happy to drop a dime on the mayor. It was the stuff of reporters' dreams: the gruff-voiced anonymous callers who reliably provided dead-on leads; the typed, unsigned letters spelling out exactly which body was buried where; the city officials who could be counted on to fill in missing pieces of whatever story I was puzzling together that week.

I'll admit it: the day I fished a copy of a clandestine city contract that would have rewarded one particular Albano backer with a lucrative, seemingly bogus job from a trash can where a source had left it for me was one of my favorite days ever on the job. Once I got past my concern that it would keep me from doing my job, I came to rather enjoy my non-relationship with the mayor. If nothing else, it gave me some great war stories.

 

My relationship with Sarno is, at least so far, less fun. Instead it's disappointing, and somewhat baffling.

As a city councilor, Sarno had always distinguished himself with his accessibility and courtesy. Others of his Council colleagues had taken the Albano route and stopped talking to Advocate reporters; apparently some took issue with being called inept bums who were leading the city into ruin. Sarno, however, had always been happy to talk. While that might have been the result of nothing more than scrupulous manners, I liked to think that it was a sign that he took seriously his responsibility to be publicly accountable for his actions, and that he was confident enough in his decisions to explain and defend them.

Sarno's accessibility continued into last year's mayoral election. No doubt he knew that the Advocate had for years offered strong editorial support for his opponent, incumbent Mayor Charlie Ryan. Still, on a hot morning late last summer, Sarno spent a couple of hours with me in the mostly deserted food court at Tower Square, answering questions about his time on the Council, his desire to be mayor, his ideas for saving the troubled city. He gamely addressed critics who said he lacked the qualifications for the job, especially compared to an accomplished veteran like Ryan. He didn't flinch when I asked him about his relationship with Charlie Kingston, a one-time city tax collector who was convicted of filing false tax returns in 1994. (Kingston was granted a new trial a few years later and eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor tax charges. Since then, he'd emerged as one of the city's behind-the-scenes dealmakers, and ran Albano's 2001 campaign against then-state Rep. Paul Caron.)

That was the last extensive conversation I had with Sarno. Perhaps he was upset with the subsequent article, which—in addition to lengthy quotes from him and details about his platform—noted his connection to Kingston, questioned if he could make the transition from being one of nine councilors to becoming the city's chief executive, and included comments from some of his critics. (See "The Old Pro vs. the Kid," Nov. 1, 2007, www.valleyadvocate.com.) Sarno might have been unhappy with those elements of the story, but he shouldn't have been surprised, since we'd talked about them during our last interview.

Perhaps, then, Sarno was unhappy with the headline my editors put on the front page of the Advocate after his surprising defeat of Ryan: "What the Hell, Springfield?" the headline demanded in large letters.

Whatever the cause, Sarno's once-open door quickly shut. The first sign of discord came early in his administration, when I called to ask him about progress on locating a new branch library in Mason Square. My call was taken by Azell Murphy Cavaan, a former Republican reporter who'd been hired by Ryan as his press aide and continued to hold that post under Sarno. I told her why I was calling, and asked that the mayor call me back.

A little later, I got an email from Cavaan with a two-paragraph statement that, in truth, said little. "Mayor Sarno is acutely aware of the pressing need to secure a library location in the Mason Square neighborhood," it read, and "he has spent a considerable amount of time consulting with the appropriate parties and evaluating the options."

The statement did not address any of the questions I would have asked Sarno had I had a chance to speak with him—for instance, what he thought of the controversial idea being floated that the city take by eminent domain the former library branch, now home to the Urban League.

 

I protested to Cavaan, explaining that, as a reporter, I like to have actual conversations with my sources, not just cut and paste prepared statements into news articles. In response, she wrote, "Please be advised that Mayor Sarno does sometimes choose to respond to questions via a written response. You can choose to use it if you'd like or not."

The lines of communication—such as they were—declined from there. When I tried to interview Sarno about this year's municipal budget, Cavaan responded with a short email: "The Mayor is unavailable."

"Azell, what's going on?" I replied in frustration. "Is he just never going to speak to me?" Cavaan never responded to that email, or subsequent ones.

While I can't help but suspect that the deafening silence from the mayor's office has something to do with my reporting specifically, Mayor Sarno has not, generally speaking, exactly been a Chatty Cathy. City Hall coverage in the Republican has been surprisingly heavy on prepared statements rather than actual quotes from the mayor. Interestingly, Sarno seems more forthcoming with TV and radio reporters, and also records podcasts for Masslive.com.

His reticence extends beyond the media. City councilors have complained about the lack of communication from the mayor's office, too. Sarno, for instance, barred councilors from working sessions with city department heads during the budget process, and originally told them they couldn't ask questions when he presented his budget to them. Councilor Tim Rooke says when councilors call Sarno with questions, they get emailed "statements" in response; when Councilor Rosemarie Mazza Moriarty had questions about Sarno's proposed (and since abandoned) pay-as-you-throw trash system, he responded via press release.

Like Albano, Sarno's decision not to talk to the Advocate probably won't serve him well. For one thing, it eliminates one outlet through which he can communicate with his bosses, the people of Springfield. For another, it means he's passing up the chance to address his critics or argue for his positions. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column in which Rooke blasted Sarno over his handling of the budget process. Sarno opted to ignore my interview requests, in essence, allowing Rooke to take free shots at him. Fair enough; Sarno's refusal to engage doesn't mean Rooke should have to swallow his criticisms of the mayor, any more than it means the Advocate shouldn't write about him.

Indeed, Rooke, a veteran councilor, offers an interesting contrast to Sarno. While Rooke has been the object of criticism from the Advocate—for his opposition to needle exchange and ward representation, for instance —he's never dodged a call from our reporters. Rooke's openness suggests that he's secure enough in his positions—and in the support of his constituents—that talking to a reporter from a newspaper with a different ideological bent causes him no anxiety.

It also speaks to his political smarts: Rooke apparently recognizes that it's wiser for an elected official to keep his voice in the public dialogue, even when he risks getting beaten up a bit, than to run away or sulk. By maintaining a cordial and open relationship with the Advocate, Rooke makes it impossible for us to reduce him to a political caricature; every conversation is a chance to build some good will and to convey a more nuanced understanding of him, his motives and his positions.

Sarno is not giving himself that opportunity. Six months into his first term, I don't know Springfield's new mayor any better than I did before. In fact, I'm surprised to find that he's apparently not the person I thought I knew before he took office.

mturner@valleyadvocate.com

 

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