EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 29, 2013

State overseer blocks three Lantigua promotions

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — The city’s fiscal overseer has blocked outgoing Mayor William Lantigua’s attempt to promote three police officers, intercepting some of the ongoing shuffle of city jobs in Lantigua’s final days in office.

Mayor-elect Daniel Rivera said he will review the other so-called midnight appointments when he takes office Thursday to ensure that the proper process was followed and that those hired are qualified for the jobs Lantigua gave them.

“It doesn’t matter,” Rivera said about the sudden job shuffle at City Hall. “On (Jan. 2), we’ll review all those actions. It’ll just be more of the work that we have to do.”

Most of the promotions and new hires are occurring at the Department of Public Works, which has been the primary source of patronage appointments for Lantigua over the last four years.

Most recently, Lantigua gave permanent jobs to five men he initially hired as temporary laborers, even though none had the required license to drive trucks and operate heavy machinery when he hired them and none obtained it during the 90-day temporary appointments. Laborers earn up to $41,324 annually.

Also at the DPW, Lantigua on Dec. 11 promoted his recycling coordinator, Andrys Castillo, to a carpenter’s position. The move boosted Castillo’s salary by about $4,000, to about $49,000, and gives him the protection of a union, although he would be on probation for six months and so could be terminated without cause.

Several of those who would benefit from the job shuffle volunteered on Lantigua’s campaign or donated to it, including Castillo and Police Officer Carmen Purpora, who contributed $400 this year, records show.

Although Purpora is fourth on a Civil Service list of officers eligible for promotion to sergeant, Lantigua could have promoted him if he were able to disqualify any one of the three officers above Purpora on the list. Police officers earn an average of about $50,000; sergeants earn an average of about $65,000.

Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Acting Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said Friday that he, like Nunes, advised Lantigua that the department could not afford three new sergeants.

At DPW, some of the workers Rivera wants out, including Street Foreman Joel Chalas and Parks Foreman Jorge Jaime, are union members who can be removed only for cause, and so could present a challenge to Rivera as he attempts to reshape the city workforce. Chalas and Jaime are two of Lantigua’s top political lieutenants and regularly appeared beside him at campaign events this summer and fall.

Others, including Lorenza Ortega, a secretary in the Personnel Department and Lantigua’s wife, are not union members and so have little protection.

Rivera said the decision by Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, to block the police promotions “shows that the overseer has been trying to keep the mayor in check all along. Not as much as we wanted, but we’re happy that the overseer did step in.”

By e-mail on Dec. 11, Nunes advised city Personnel Director Frank Bonet that “funding is not available for the (police) promotions at this time. I respectfully request that you stop the civil service promotional process.”

Nunes has veto power over city spending. The decision to use it to block the three police promotions was a reversal for Nunes, who last year declined a request by several city councilors — including Rivera, who is the council’s vice chairman — to remove Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla from the city payroll after his indictment on corruption charges on Sept. 11, 2012. Lantigua suspended Bonilla with pay, allowing him to continue collecting his salary. He earned $138,000 last year, records show.

On Friday, Nunes drew a distinction between his decision to block the promotion of the three police officers to sergeant and his inaction amid the furor on the City Council when Lantigua sent Bonilla home on full pay.

He said there was no funding in the city budget for the police promotions, while Bonilla’s salary was fully funded. He added that he asked Lantigua to suspend Bonilla’s pay in private meetings, when he said the discussions were “heated.”

Bonilla managed Lantigua’s first campaign for mayor in 2009. After taking office, Lantigua promoted him from sergeant to deputy chief, demoting then-Deputy Chief Michael Driscoll and leapfrogging Bonilla over the department’s lieutenants and captains.

Rivera said he will demote Bonilla to sergeant and suspend his pay on Thursday.

In a related move, the City Council has trimmed two years off the three-year lease Lantigua proposed to continue housing the Planning and Economic Development departments in a third-floor suite of a downtown office building that once housed Lantigua’s campaign headquarters.

Lantigua rented a storefront in the building, at 225 Essex St., to use as his district office while he was a state representative and then as a headquarters for his first mayoral campaign. He paid $950 a month for the space, which has over-sized plate glass windows on the city’s main commercial boulevard.

After taking office in 2010, he moved the planning and economic development departments to the building’s third floor from a nearby city-owned building.

Under the one-year lease extension, the city will pay $92,400 for the third-floor suite, which is 6,900 square feet.

The building is owned by Markarian properties, whose principals include Haroutioun and Eric Markarian.

In cutting the lease extension from three years to one, city councilors also asked Lantigua to provide them with a list of all properties the city rents, which includes the Essex Street headquarters of the School Department.