LAWRENCE — From a former public school assessed at $1 million that the city provides rent-free, Isabel Melendez oversees an umbrella group of anti-poverty programs that have made her a beloved patron of the city’s poor as well as a political kingmaker.
Last month, Mayor William Lantigua tapped Melendez to manage his re-election campaign, formally joining the forces of a woman who has won the loyalties of the city’s poor by the free services she provides and a mayor who for four years has given her the resources — also including free electricity, gas and sewer, water and maintenance services — to do it.
Ana Medina, a member of the city board that oversees elections, also is campaigning for Lantigua, attending rallies, sending checks to his campaign organization and covering her car and the hedges of the Marston Street home she shares with her parents with Lantigua stickers and signs. She also runs a local social service agency called Casa Dominicana that has received $28,000 in city funding under Lantigua, which appears to be its only source of revenue.
On Election Day on Nov. 5 and in the days that follow, Medina will be one of the three members of the Board of Registrars who could decide the outcome of the mayoral election by ruling on voter challenges, the validity of absentee ballots and other election issues.
Steve Kfoury, a former city councilman who manages the publications division of the state office that oversees municipal elections, made automated “robo calls” to residents across Lawrence on the day before the Sept. 17 preliminary election, urging them to turn out for Lantigua.
His boss, Secretary of State William Galvin, recently declined to investigate evidence of fraud inside the city’s Election Division and last week rejected a request from Lantigua’s challenger, City Councilor Daniel Rivera, to add to the handful of observers the office traditionally sends to Lawrence on Election Day.
A spokesman for Galvin said the concern Rivera expressed that the election would not be fair lacked specifics.
Melendez, Medina and Kfoury are not breaking the state’s narrowly drawn conflict of interest laws when they campaign for Lantigua, although questions arose last week about whether Melendez has been legally occupying the school building since former mayor Michael Sullivan offered it to her in 2009 just before leaving office.
But beyond what could be at least the appearance of a conflict for the three, critics say, relationships like these are providing Lantigua with a built-in, institutional advantage in his contest with Rivera, who as a two-term city councilor has access to few if any of the levers of influence and the perks of office available to the incumbent mayor.
“(Medina) is a nice lady — she was at my wedding,” Rivera said. “But this is about, can the election process be beyond reproach? When a member of the Board of Registrars who may have to make a decision against the mayor is actively campaigning and raising money at fund-raisers — she’s got one of those (Lantigua campaign posters) on her car — there’s no way ‘impartial’ will happen here.”
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, a non-profit group that advocates for good government reforms nationwide, said providing a valuable city asset for free to someone now managing the mayor’s campaign presents “all sorts of potential problems.”
“Even if good things are happening in a public building, it’s a public resource and it needs to be fairly allocated, not allocated according to political connections,” Wilmot said. “This is a public good and it needs to be allocated in a way that’s fair and returns a good value to the city.”
Lantigua and Medina declined to be interviewed for this story.
Kfoury and Melendez noted that they developed friendships with Lantigua before he was elected mayor in 2009. Both disputed the notion that campaigning for him presents a conflict for them.
Kfoury’s job as the director of a division that edits and publishes state laws and other documents for the Secretary of State’s Office does not involve overseeing elections, which is handled by a separate division of the secretary’s office.
“I can do whatever I want on my free time,” said Kfoury, who served as an at-large city councilor from 1990 to 1998, including four years as council president, and also has chaired the City Democratic Committee. “I love this city dearly. I do. I serve it in any way I can.”
Melendez said she does not advocate for Lantigua while overseeing the array of social services at the former General Donovan School on Cross Street, including a renowned voter registration program that she said has registered thousands of voters over the years. When a recent visitor to the school asked Melendez for a voter registration form while she stood in a hallway at the school, she reached out and pulled one out of a file folder hanging from a wall without having to take a step.
She said her own programs and similar programs she has invited into the building have served thousands of the city’s poor, providing them with free clothing and furniture and lessons in English, computers and needlework.
“Just because I do a favor for you doesn’t mean I can tell you how to vote,” she said. “If I want to get votes, I get on the street. Here, we don’t ask if you’re an American citizen.”
At the same time, Melendez described how the two causes of her life — social service and political activism — have entwined since she came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico and settled in Lawrence 54 years ago. She acknowledged using the following she’s won through her anti-poverty programs to help elect at least one mayor.
“I went out in the community,” Melendez said, describing her work to elect Patricia Dowling, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2001. “She didn’t know the people. I know the city and I love the people.”
Melendez’ friendship with Lantigua dates back even further and runs deeper. Lantigua managed Melendez’ unsuccessful campaign to succeed Dowling in 2001. Melendez volunteered in Lantigua’s campaigns for the Statehouse over the next several years and in 2009 helped run his campaign for mayor. On Inauguration Day, she held the Bible as Lantigua took the oath of office.
“I love William and I believe in him,” Melendez said at a press conference after Lantigua’s election.
In the four years since, Lantigua has been returning some of that love. Two years ago, he picked Melendez’s son from about 16 candidates to serve as the city’s director of veterans services, which pays $68,653 a year.
Last year, the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, which is funded in part by the city and includes board members nominated by the mayor, hired Melendez’ daughter as director of community services at a salary the agency has declined to disclose. Marisabel Melendez, who had been a $20,000-a-year secretary in a Florida school, succeeded her mother in the job.
Isabel Melendez arrived at the General Donovan School in 2009, although it was unclear last week whether she came on her own or under the auspices of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council.
Former mayor Sullivan said he negotiated a $1-a-year lease with GLCAC for the building a few months before he left office, a price that would be permitted under state procurement laws that allow municipalities to discount rents to tenants who promote a public purpose.
Sullivan said Melendez, then the director of GLCAC’s community service programs, asked to use the building to store furniture she was collecting for the victims of a fire that burned a block of buildings on Parker, Market and Springfield streets in January 2008, making dozens of families homeless. The city had tried without success to sell the three-story school, which it closed about 2001, Sullivan said.
Over the last two months, city officials were unable to provide The Eagle-Tribune with the lease Sullivan said he negotiated with GLCAC. The newspaper requested the document under the state public records law on Aug. 21.
Evelyn Friedman, GLCAC’s executive director, also was not able to find a lease the agency may have signed with the city to occupy the school. But she provided a document titled “Special Use License” that would have allowed Melendez to rent the school for $1 a year for three years to operate a program called Centro Comunitario Para La Gente, or Community Center for the People.
The document is dated March 1, 2012, two months after Melendez retired from GLCAC. The copy GLCAC provided is not signed.
It requires Melendez to pay “the appropriate suppliers for all water, gas, fuel oil, electricity, telephone and other utilities,” to reimburse the city for the cost of maintaining the building and to purchase liability insurance protecting her organization and the city.
Neither GLCAC nor Melendez has paid for any utilities beyond the telephone or reimbursed the city for sewer, water and maintenance services since 2009, documents obtained under the public records law show.
Instead, the city has paid the bills, which this year alone totaled $8,591 through September. The number does not include the school’s share of another $8,316 the city has spent so far this year to maintain the school and a group of other public buildings, which are billed as a single unit.
Jack Meyers, a spokesman for state Inspector General Glenn Cunha, would not comment on the arrangement between the city and Melendez.
Former mayor Sullivan said circumstances have changed since he offered Melendez the building five years ago, making it no longer appropriate for her to occupy the 17,376-square-foot building for free.
“It doesn’t matter how she ended up in that building — whether I gave her the keys, GLCAC gave her the keys or Mayor Lantigua gave her the keys,” Sullivan said. “There’s a huge conflict of interest with her being his campaign manager and running multiple programs from a city building.”
The arrangement appears inconsistent with city policies adopted by Lantigua and the City Council. Prodded by the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Lantigua and the council are selling dozens of unused city-owned properties to help manage the city budget, including the former Charles Storrow Elementary School, which it sold for $200,300 two years ago.
The overseer, Robert Nunes, declined to comment on whether renting a school no longer needed by the city for $1 a year is inconsistent with the stepped-up effort to raise revenues by selling excess real estate.
The City Council also has refused to fund or provide other support to non-profit organizations that offer social services in the city if they have not filed the federal tax forms required of tax-exempt non-profits.
Melendez said her operation has never incorporated or filed the federal non-profit tax forms because she does not believe it is necessary since the organization does little fundraising. She said she is not paid for the work she does.
City Council President Frank Moran could not be reached Friday on why the council has not enforced its policy on non-profits that have not filed federal tax forms.
“I’ve never asked the city for anything,” Melendez said. “This building is a blessing because I can do what I want to do — help people. Tomorrow, they can take the building. I won’t suffer. You know who suffers? The people I’m helping.”