By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – The city is heading into Tuesday’s election with an elections board hobbled by vacancies, constrained by delays and vulnerable to challenges and with a two-year record of violating a core provision of the state’s open meetings law.
The board – which conducts recounts and rules on voter challenges at the polls and on the validity of absentee ballots – has no chairman and keeps no minutes of its meetings despite the state law, which requires all public bodies to “create and maintain accurate minutes of all meetings.”
The five-member board also has had as few as two members since Jan. 25. It now has three, just enough for the quorum needed to conduct business. When one of the three sitting members is absent, as has happened at least three times since the Sept. 17 preliminary election, the board can’t act.
Last month’s canceled meetings included one when the registrars were to begin questioning the city’s bilingual election coordinator about allegations that he forged signatures on nominating petitions for state Rep. Frank Moran last fall – an investigation that the board waited 12 months to open.
And as both Mayor William Lantigua and challenger Daniel Rivera warn that they will be on high alert for voter irregularities on Tuesday, one registrar who will be deciding which challenged voters can vote and which contested absentee ballots will count has been an active foot-soldier in Lantigua’s re-election campaign.
Registrar Ana Medina, whom Lantigua put on the board in 2011, has contributed $400 to Lantigua’s campaign this year, attended several of his rallies and fixed Lantigua bumper stickers and posters to her car and home.
Medina is not shy about her support for Lantigua: one of the posters in front of her Marston Street home is 32 square feet, more than five times larger than city zoning allows.
Medina heads Casa Dominica, a social service agency that has received $28,000 in funding from the Lantigua administration over the last three years. The money appears to be the agency’s only source of funding.
The state’s narrowly drawn ethics laws allow members of town and city boards of registrar to work on political campaigns. But Pam Wilmot, the executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, said Medina’s efforts on behalf of Lantigua’s re-election could expose her to allegations that she has the mayor on her mind when she considers voter challenges and related issues.
“Clearly, the optics are not good and she’s going to have to bend over backwards to prove she’s not being biased,” Wilmot said. “Ideally, election officials are completely impartial and are not participating in political campaigns, because it does raise the appearance that they’re not going to be fair, and that’s a problem.”
Medina has declined several requests for an interview about her dual role as a city registrar and a Lantigua volunteer.
An effort to track how Medina voted on the Board of Registrars since Lantigua put her on it in 2011 revealed that the board has kept no minutes for at least two years, despite the state mandate that every public agency keep records of its meetings.
On Sept. 21, The Eagle-Tribune filed a request with City Clerk William Maloney, who serves on the Board of Registrars, for copies of the board’s minutes over the last two years. The newspaper filed the request under the state’s Public Records Law, which allowed Maloney 10 days to respond.
Maloney did not acknowledge the request. The newspaper appealed to the state Supervisor of Records, a division of the Secretary of State.
City Attorney Charles Boddy then responded that the board has kept no minutes over the two years but began keeping minutes on Oct. 12, which was its first meeting following the newspaper’s request.
Massachusetts General Law requires all municipal boards, councils other public agencies to “maintain accurate minutes of all meetings, including executive sessions, setting forth the date, time and place, the members present or absent, a summary of the discussions on each subject, a list of documents and other exhibits used at the meeting, the decisions made and the actions taken at each meeting, including the record of all votes.”
Maloney did not return a phone call Friday.
Minutes “allow the public to see the government at work,” said Peter Caruso, a First Amendment lawyer who represents several news organizations in the region, including The Eagle-Tribune. “By keeping these records secret, you keep secret the actions of public officials.”
Although the Board of Registrars is independent, Rivera, the two-term city councilor challenging Lantigua, said Lantigua bears responsibility for its deficiencies.
“The way they do business under this mayor is that whatever they want to do, they do,” Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter what the law is or what common sense says. They just do it. Of course it’s important that the board keep minutes. It’s the elections board for the city. There’s nothing more important than that.”
At least one of the board’s deficiencies could be corrected Wednesday, the day after the election, when voters will choose not only a mayor but also a City Council and two school committees. Lantigua last month nominated Francisco Surillo and Ricardo DeJesus to fill the two vacant seats on the board. The council could vote on the nominees on Wednesday.
Surillo is the brother-in-law of Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign. Lantigua kept Bonilla on paid leave from his $140,000-a-year job even after Bonilla was indicted on extortion and other corruption charges 14 months ago.