By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua’s nine-month effort to fill seats on the Licensing Board ended this week as it began — with an exchange of allegations between the mayor and a sharply divided City Council and a renewed round of questions about the qualifications of the board’s membership.
Even as the protracted saga over the Licensing Board vacancies wrapped up Monday night with the council’s narrow, back-to-back votes to approve Lantigua’s latest two nominees, the mayor left the council with a finger-wagging scolding and a taunt.
“(If) it’s me who you want, you will have that opportunity next year,” Lantigua told the council, referring to his upcoming re-election campaign.
The council votes ended a losing streak for Lantigua that saw his four earlier efforts to fill the vacancies derailed by the council or the City Attorney. This time, the council gave a mixed backing to his nominees, although several councilors said they were voting against them because of what one called the “tainted process,” including that there would be no time to send the nominees to committee for review if the remade Licensing Board were to meet as scheduled later Monday night.
The council voted 5-4 to approve Ronald Martin, a retired IRS employee who resigned from the Board of Registrars after 14 years to take the Licensing Board seat, and 6-3 to approve Leocadio Paulino, a building contractor.
The votes gave the three-member Licensing Board the quorum it needed to meet later that night for the first time since August. Its brand new members, led by chairwoman Mayra Lantigua, the mayor’s ex-wife, confronted an overflowing agenda and issued a string of licenses and other approval to applicants who have been waiting as long as seven months.
At least one applicant noted the revenues he lost as the Licensing Board idled, waiting for a quorum, while Mayor Lantigua and the council stumbled through the process.
“We were hoping for the holidays,” said George Bonfiglio, owner of Three Dogz Diner, who got an approval from the board Monday night to serve beer and wine, but still needs an approval from the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission before he can get the license he applied for in May. “My wife and I don’t go anywhere for dinner where we can’t have a beer, so I can’t expect my own customers to.”
The battles over the Licensing Board vacancies began after member Tom Murphy resigned Jan. 1, reducing the board’s membership to two. Nine months later, on Sept. 9, the hobbled board became disabled when chairman Rick Fielding died after a long illness, reducing the board to a single member.
Mayor Lantigua’s effort to fill the board stumbled out of the gate in March, when the City Council rejected his request to put high school administrator Alfonso Garcia on the board because of the conflict he might face drawing a city paycheck while also serving on a board that makes city policy.
Lantigua’s effort to restock the board since then has seemed almost farcical. He did nothing for six months, until Fielding’s death, then attempted to invoke his emergency powers to put Garcia on the board without resubmitting his name to the City Council.
Garcia served for two weeks, until City Attorney Charles Boddy responded to an inquiry from Councilor Eileen Bernal with an opinion that state law does not allow emergency appointments to local licensing boards.
Lantigua then nominated Luis Martinez and Pedro Torres. Responding to an inquiry from Councilor Marc Laplante, Boddy rejected them as well because they did not meet the partisan qualifications for serving. State law requires that licensing boards have at least one Republican and one Democrat.
Lantigua then called another emergency meeting of the council to consider appointing Martin to the board, but canceled the meeting 45 minutes before it was to begin when Boddy advised the mayor that Martin could not serve on the Licensing Board while also serving on the Board of Registrars.
Lantigua then persuaded Martin to resign as a registrar, allowing him to resubmit Martin’s name to the council last week, along with Paulino’s. He narrowly escaped a fifth straight defeat with the council’s 5-4 vote to approve Martin, which came after Councilor Daniel Rivera protested that Martin’s service to the city had gone on too long.
“When you’ve served six mayors, maybe it’s time that the sixth mayor look for somebody else to serve,” Rivera said. “It’s just asking too much of the same people.”
Martin’s public service began as a member of a charter study commission in 1972, and since then has served on the city’s housing and redevelopment authorities as well as the Board of Registrars, which he chaired for the last five years. He also worked as an assistant tax collector from 1999 to 2008.
Lantigua and Martin responded angrily to Rivera’s suggestion that the Licensing Board needs newer blood.
“He needs to be commended for his years of service to this community, not criticized because of his experience,” Lantigua told the council.
“All my years with the city, what I’ve done with the city, my experience — I think they should welcome that I’m serving on a board that could use some expertise,” Martin, who is 72, said yesterday. “This is the way I’m being treated, after all these years?”
Martin’s term will expire in June 2014. Paulino’s will expire in June 2018.
Even as the council and Lantigua settled their protracted battle over the Licensing Board’s membership, another may be erupting.
Yesterday, Councilor Laplante questioned whether Mayra Lantigua can serve as acting chairperson of the Licensing Board because her term expired in 2007.
Licensing Board members whose terms expire can continue serving until they are reappointed or replaced, but they cannot chair the board, according to the city charter.
Laplante yesterday asked City Attorney Boddy for an opinion about whether Lantigua can continue as acting chair of the board.
Boddy did not return a phone call yesterday.