By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla will stay on the city payroll after a proposal to eliminate his job – and the $138,000 salary he has been collecting from home since he was indicted on corruption charges in September - fizzled in the City Council last week.
A second proposal that would allow the city to stop paying employees who are indicted also has gone nowhere since October, when the council sent it to City Attorney Charles Boddy for review.
There are now four indicted city employees collecting paychecks from home - all cops. The last to get sent home with pay was Officer Carlos Gonzalez, who was put on leave from his $60,000-a-year job Dec. 17 after police in Florida said they were investigating allegations he sexually assaulted a minor. Gonzalez was formally charged on Feb. 27 and is voluntarily returning to Florida to face the charge.
On Thursday, a City Council committee voted 3-1 to table the proposal to cut the deputy chief’s job from the budget after a debate in which Council President Frank Moran suggested it was aimed at Bonilla personally. Moran questioned whether the council would be considering the proposal if Michael Driscoll still held the deputy’s job.
Driscoll held the job until William Lantigua became mayor in January 2010, when Lantigua demoted him to captain and promoted Bonilla from sergeant to the deputy’s job. Bonilla managed Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign and remains one of his top political lieutenants.
City Councilor Marc Laplante, who is sponsoring the proposal to eliminate the deputy chief’s post, said it is intended to better allocate manpower in a department whose ranks have been decimated by layoffs and attrition. The department has 119 sworn officers, down from 146 three years ago and a peak of 161.
“Our numbers in the department are so low that it doesn’t require us to have a deputy police chief,” Laplante said. “We could use the savings from that to add to the rank and file.”
Police Chief John Romero has supported eliminating the chief’s position since Laplante first proposed it in 2010, but four efforts to get the measure out of a council committee since then have failed. Romero reiterated his support at the council’s Ordinance Committee meeting on Thursday, after chairwoman Eileen Bernal asked him to attend the meeting and update his opinion.
Romero credited Lantigua with trying to rebuild Police Department ranks following the layoffs and attrition that occurred under former Mayor Michael Sullivan and then Lantigua, but said he needs additional officers more than he needs a deputy.
“I give the mayor credit,” Romero said. “He’s made efforts to get cops back, and he has. He’s worked to increase the numbers but, unfortunately, the grants have not been there. Given the current structure of the department, I believe at this time the position is not needed.”
Lantigua did not return a phone call Friday.
Bonilla did not respond to a request for an interview made through his lawyer, Alex Cain.
Bonilla was indicted on felony fraud, extortion and conspiracy charges in September for allegedly arranging to swap 13 police vehicles, including a Cadillac and a Lexus, for four Chevrolet Impalas owned by a used car dealer with ties to Lantigua. Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, said after an investigation that the city lost $36,000 in the deal.
City Councilor Eileen Bernal chairs the committee that tabled the proposal to eliminate the chief’s job and was the only councilor to support sending the measure to the full council on Thursday. Along with Moran, Councilors Estela Reyes and Kendrys Vasquez voted to table it.
On Friday, she expressed added frustration that City Attorney Charles Boddy has not provided her committee with an opinion regarding the separate proposal to allow the city to withhold paychecks from employees who are indicted. The paychecks would be held in escrow until the employees are convicted or indicted, which state law allows.
“I asked for (an opinion) in October, November, December, January and February,” Bernal said. “I feel like that one should have been done in 20 minutes. It’s just codifying state law. There’s no homework to do.”
“I have done some initial research on the matter, but a matter of this nature requires more research so that we get it right,” Boddy said in a Feb. 21 e-mail to Bernal.
Boddy could not be reached Friday.