Sarno, Pepe, Tosado spar in heated mayoral debate
Date: 9/19/2011Sept. 19, 2011
By G. Michael Dobbs
Managing EditorNEWS ANALYSIS
SPRINGFIELD What was seen on the stage of the Karen Sprague Arts Center on Sept. 13 at American International College was more than the culmination of a series of debates and a summer of campaigning for two slots on the November ballot for mayor. It was also a revelation of the relationship between incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno and two of his most persistent critics, City Council President Jose Tosado and School Committee member Antonette Pepe.
Both Pepe and Tosado have clashed with Sarno on a variety of issues over the past two years and in this forum presented by the McKnight Neighborhood Council the veneer of civility cracked a bit.
For most of the two-hour discussion, Sarno’s strategy was to stay above the fray and allow Tosado and Pepe to appear as critics, while he emphasized his accomplishments.
When Sarno was asked how well he worked with the City Council, he replied, “I think I have a good relationship with members of the City Council. We’re not always going to agree, but I respect their opinions and constructive criticisms.”
The remark elicited Tosado to reply that Sarno has left the council “completely in the dark.”
“There is a basic lack of communication,” he charged.
Pepe responded, “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” She noted that Sarno put up “barrier after barrier” to city councilors trying to get information.
On the issue of supporting the controversial biomass project, Pepe charged that donations made to Sarno’s campaign from biomass supporters might have made a difference in how the mayor supported the project.
A question about what part of the job of mayor would be the hardest to accomplish drew interesting answers. A refreshingly candid response from Tosado had him admitting that going to public functions and events would be the most difficult role. He believed his greatest contribution would be staying in his office working on issues.
Pepe said she was a multi-tasker who would be “surrounded by a brilliant team” and didn’t really see a part of the job that would bother her.
Sarno spoke of the long hours of the job and the many times he only saw his two daughters once a day.
“I live this job 24/7,” he said.
When asked about taking responsibility for the failure in the school system, Pepe said she would not and then detailed the many instances she asked for clarification on issues or resisted the status quo, such as giving School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram a raise based on his performance.
Sarno, who is chair of the School Committee, admitted, “We do have our challenges,” but then added “Negativity won’t get us anywhere.” He said there are “pockets of success” in the school system.
When this reporter’s question, “Why is it the city has more police officers per capita than Boston and yet we suffer from more violent crime?” was read to Sarno, he spoke of some of the programs instituted under his administration such as data-drive strategies and the quality of life flex squad. He also mentioned there have been no layoffs of police personnel.
“Deployment is key,” he said and added there is more to be done and he is looking for new strategies.
This question gave Tosado the opportunity to note that when Sarno ran against Mayor Charles Ryan, Sarno gave Ryan a failing grade because of the 17 murders that year. Murder is still a problem with the number of murders so far this year at 15.
“How would candidate Sarno score Mayor Sarno?” Tosado asked to applause.
Pepe said, if elected, she would return to a community policing model with officers assigned to each neighborhood in the city. She would also question how police resources are deployed.
When it came to the selection of a new school superintendent, Pepe said that parents, teachers and students should be consulted on whom they would want. She said all applications would be redacted so only the School Committee could see the qualifications initially. She said that unlike Ingram, the city needs someone who has worked in a classroom and been a principal.
Sarno, who was on the Finance Control Board that selected Ingram, said he would support a community process but said there is an “intangible” he would be looking for “a sparkle in the eye.”
The most pronounced exchange of the night came after a question to Pepe about how large a budget she had managed. She drew a laugh when she deadpanned it was the budget for her home and then spoke about the $350 million of the School Department that she has scrutinized as a member of the School Committee.
Pepe next criticized Sarno for politicizing the tornado relief efforts and alluded to how difficult it is to work with the Sarno Administration. She cited an antique car rally that was considering coming to the city and the Hoop City Jazz Festival as examples of events that have had difficulty with the mayor.
Sarno clearly was affected by Pepe’s charges, and said, “Mrs. Pepe, you really don’t know a damn thing about budgets!”
Alluding to the tornado recovery issue, Sarno said he didn’t wait for federal or state aid to start cleaning up from the storm.
Looking at both of his opponents, he said, “I didn’t see any of you people around.”
In her closing statement, an undaunted Pepe kept the heat on Sarno, quoting from a BusinessWest article on how architect’s Peter Zorski’s building in the South End was demolished needlessly after the tornado in his opinion. She said the city might be facing a lawsuit over that action.