LAWRENCE — If the grand jury probing Mayor William Lantigua indicts him, local and state officials — not a judge or another jury — would face the next question: can a city already struggling with 17 percent unemployment, surging crime and two failing schools take on the added burden of a distracted mayor on trial?
A raft of state and federal agencies are investigating Lantigua, including Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who last week began probing a swap of 13 city cars for four owned by a used car dealer close to the mayor. But the real firepower would come from a federal grand jury in Boston, which is investigating allegations of bid rigging, narcotics and weapons trafficking at local clubs, suspicious overseas travel and other charges involving Lantigua.
On Friday, Gov. Deval Patrick's press office punted a question about what might be next for Lawrence if its mayor is indicted to the Secretary of Administration and Finance, Jay Gonzalez. His spokeswoman, Alex Zaroulis, requested the question in writing, but did not respond.
While touring Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill two weeks ago, Patrick responded to the question vaguely.
"Speculation isn't helpful," Patrick said. "I can tell you that we are not going to let Lawrence fail."
The state already has its thumb on the city. In April 2010, a fiscal overseer opened an office in City Hall as a condition the state imposed when it allowed Lawrence to borrow $35 million to cover deficits run up by a previous administration.
Embedded in the legislation is the only provision in any state or local law that allows for removing a mayor. The legislation allows Gonzalez to name a control board or a receiver that would have the power to remove the mayor and run the city, but the law says Gonzalez must first determine that the city is unable to balance its budget.
That might be a hard claim to make given that the state Department of Revenue — whose deputy is Robert Nunes, the state's fiscal overseer in Lawrence — has certified both of Lantigua's budgets. Lantigua's first budget ended with a surplus of nearly $6 million.
Regardless, state Rep. David Torrisi said he believes the legislation gives Gonzalez authority "to put a control board in tomorrow, if necessary," whatever the city's financial condition. He said he would ask for that if Lantigua is indicted.
"From my perspective, at a bare minimum, you move right to a control board," said Torrisi, D-North Andover, who also emphasized that questions involving Lantigua's potential indictment were hypothetical. "We all know in the back of our minds that it's hanging out there. We're obviously concerned about it. We're paying close attention. When the time comes, we'll have to act properly and swiftly, but it's really up to the governor's office."
Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, said he believes Gonzalez can establish a control board or appoint a receiver to run Lawrence only after finding the city's budget is unbalanced. But he said he would support new special legislation to remove Lantigua if he is indicted.
Writing new legislation and going directly to receivership would dodge another problem posed by the existing legislation that allows Gonzalez to name a control board: the legislation gives the mayor a seat on the board.
"It's a hypothetical, but if he were indicted, I would argue for Lawrence going to a receivership immediately," Baddour said. "With Lawrence facing public safety stresses right now, if there's an indictment, yes, I believe there would be support for moving directly to a receiver."
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, cut off a question about how the state should respond to an indictment.
"I'm going to stop you right there," Finegold said. "I'm not going to comment on any potential allegations. I'm focused on bringing dollars to the city, helping businesses grow. We'll cross that street when it comes."
Both a control board and a receiver would have far more power than the fiscal overseer now looking over the city's shoulder for the state. The receiver would have the most sweeping power of all: he or she could go beyond removing the mayor and abolish the office altogether. A receiver also could send the City Council home, cancel upcoming elections, declare the city bankrupt and assume full control of all city operations, including even zoning.
Lawrence was steered by a control board from 1990 to 1998, although its powers were limited to fiscal issues and so were less far-reaching than the control board described in the borrowing legislation now in place.
Among Massachusetts municipalities, only one — Chelsea, in 1991 — has been placed in receivership since the Great Depression.
Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking comment about how he might react to an indictment.
History suggests he would be unlikely to voluntarily step down or even aside from the $100,000-a-year job if he is charged. A former state representative, he held onto his $60,000-a-year Statehouse seat for five weeks after he was sworn in as mayor in January 2010, giving it up only after other legislators threatened to block the deal allowing the city to borrow the $35 million to pay off the earlier deficits.
More recently, Lantigua campaigned ferociously against the effort to recall him. He labeled its leaders "enemies of the people," posted videos against the effort on his Facebook page and hired a handwriting expert to examine signatures on the recall petitions.
The recall effort failed after nearly 1,000 signatures were invalidated.
If Lantigua were to resign before June 30, 2013, the City Charter requires the Council to call a special election within 90 days to replace him. If the resignation occurred later, the council would elect a mayor from among its members.
At least one other Massachusetts mayor was stubborn about giving up the office even after he was indicted.
Boston Mayor James Michael Curley was elected to a fourth term in 1945 while under indictment for influence peddling and mail fraud. He turned the duties of the office to the city clerk, went to federal prison in Danbury, Conn., and returned to office after his sentence was commuted by President Harry Truman. Voters rejected his bid for a fifth term in 1949.
The Lawrence City Charter allows for the City Council president to take over as acting mayor if the mayor is unable to perform his duties for at least three days "by reason of illness or absence from the city."
"We're waiting for whatever happens, and then we'll act accordingly," said City Council President Frank Moran.
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