By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — A social service agency run by Mayor William Lantigua’s campaign manager that operates out of a city building rent free and without a lease must sign an agreement with the city if it is to stay in the building, the city’s fiscal overseer said.
Isabel Melendez has run an umbrella group of anti-poverty programs at the former General Donovan School on Cross Street since 2009 under a deal approved by former Mayor Michael Sullivan, who said he negotiated a $1-a-year lease for the school.
Lantigua continued the deal when he took office in 2010 and also continued paying Melendez’s utility bills at the building and providing free water, sewer and maintenance services. So far this year, the subsidies have cost the city more than $8,000.
Aides to Lantigua said last week that no lease was ever signed with Melendez, who first moved into the building under the auspices of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, where she had been a program director. She left GLCAC two years ago and negotiated her own “special use license” to remain at the General Donovan School that required her to pay utilities, reimburse the city for its services and obtain insurance, but that agreement also was never signed.
Over the years, the free social services Melendez provides out of the city building — including voter registration — have made her a patron saint to thousands of the city’s poor, whose loyalties Lantigua tapped into in August when he asked Melendez to manage his re-election campaign.
Their political alliance stretches back more than a decade, including when Lantigua managed Melendez’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2001. Two years ago, Lantigua hired Melendez’s son, Jaime, as the city’s $69,000-a-year director of Veterans Services.
Earlier this month, The Eagle-Tribune raised questions about whether Lantigua faced a conflict of interest when he named Melendez to manage his campaign while also providing her with a million-dollar city asset for free and providing thousands of dollars annually in services and subsidies. The school is assessed at $998,600.
“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,” Pam Wilmot, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, said in a story the paper published Oct. 13. “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.”
Common Cause advocates for good-government reforms nationwide.
Three days after the story appeared, Nunes, the state-appointed fiscal overseer, met with three of Lantigua’s top aides – Economic Development Director Patrick Blanchette, Budget Director Mark Iannello and City Attorney Charles Boddy – to ask that the city comply with state procurement laws and sign a lease or similar agreement with Melendez.
Nunes said the details of any deal the city now strikes with Melendez, including the rent and fees for services it collects and any subsidies it provides, will be negotiated by the city. But he noted that if Melendez is offered a lease lasting longer than a year, he has the authority to reject it.
“It was brought to my attention and we’re going to correct the wrong,” Nunes said. “Now it’s up to the city attorney to make sure everything is legal and above board. It’s not my decision on who leases the building. That’s a decision made by the policy makers. My role is to make sure the procurement practices have been abided by.”
State procurement laws require municipalities that lease space they own must first issue a public request for proposals for the space and then sign a lease or other agreement with the tenant.
Melendez and Lantigua did not return phone calls.
Nunes also asked Blanchette, Iannello and Boddy to review a similar deal that provides the former Prospect Street School to another social-service agency affiliated with GLCAC.
The Lawrence Methuen Community Council, which among other things provides services to substance abusers, has occupied at least part of the school since 2007, when Sullivan was mayor, and signed an agreement for the space with the city in 2009. The agreement does not require the agency to pay rent or utilities or to reimburse the city for sewer, water and management services and it has no expiration date.
Harold Magoon, the agency’s director, could not be reached.
Meanwhile, as the city provides the two former school buildings free of charge to the two agencies, it is renting a four-story office building at 255 Essex St. to house its administrative offices.
Chris Markuns, a spokesman for Jeff Riley, the receiver running Lawrence schools for the state, said information about the rent the city is paying for the Essex Street building was not immediately available Friday. Otherwise, he said the schools are not now pressed for space.
“Currently, Lawrence Public Schools has adequate facility space, but if enrollment continues to grow we could certainly revisit any options for adding space in coming years,” Markuns said.
Nunes directive on the two leases for the schools is at least the fourth time he has required the city to reform the way it does business since he became overseer four years ago. Nunes also directed the city to:
– Install meters at city parking facilities after parking attendant Justo Garcia was accused of skimming thousands of dollars in collections,
– Revamp procurement policies in the Police Department after Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla was indicted for allegedly swapping 13 city vehicles for four owned by a car dealer connected to Lantigua.
– Install new computer software to track building inspections after inspector Larry Hester allegedly failed to report $33 million worth of development he approved over two years.
“We’ve improved policies and procedures throughout the city government through the years and that will continue,” Nunes said. “In fairness to current city officials, some of this stuff was inherited.”