By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor Daniel Rivera and a City Council led by a new president with an assertive style are headed for what could be a first showdown tomorrow, when a closely divided council has signaled it may reject his choice for city planning director.
The council’s Personnel Committee rejected Theresa Park’s nomination in a 3-1 vote last week as councilors praised her qualifications but scolded Rivera for putting her on the payroll at a $75,000 salary with a $1,900 monthly stipend before sending them her nomination.
By Friday, a poll of city councilors indicated Park may be a vote short of the five needed for confirmation.
The challenge to the new mayor is the most recent of several by a council that is itself not yet four months old.
Its budget committee is reviewing Rivera’s decision to give the city’s ambulance contract to Lawrence General Hospital without advertising it and to waive what could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in 911 dispatch fees.
Another committee is reviewing Rivera’s decision to rehire Public Works Supervisor Greg Morris, who was fired by former Mayor William Lantigua after employees he supervised were found dumping snow into the Merrimack River.
Several councilors also have split with Rivera over whether to pay a contractor Lantigua directed to pave 16 streets without a contract in the weeks before last year’s mayoral election. Rivera said he will block any effort to pay the $294,000 bill.
Although the lineups on the council shift slightly with each issue, the general alignment taking shape suggests the council is dividing into two camps: those who supported Lantigua’s re-election last year and those who supported Rivera.
Among the councilors, Oneida Aquino was Lantigua’s most reliable vote over the four years he was mayor. Since January, she’s emerged as Rivera’s most outspoken critic.
Most recently, last week Aquino voted against Rivera’s request to give acting Public Works Director John Isensee a permanent appointment to the job, even though she voted for Isensee when Lantigua nominated him three years ago.
The council rejected Isensee for the appointment in 2011, but approved him last week after a debate in which Aquino questioned him intensely about why he waited until Lantigua was defeated to speak out about what he said was the former mayor’s meddling in his department. Aquino was joined in the grilling by Council President Modesto Maldonado, who also supported Lantigua over Rivera in last year’s election.
Reading from handwritten notes, Aquino pressed Isensee on a range of issues involving the Public Works Department and the former mayor, including whether Isensee aided Rivera in purging at least nine employees — many of them Lantigua campaign workers — at city parking garages because they allegedly were not needed, but then replaced most of them.
Also at last Tuesday’s meeting, Maldonado questioned Isensee about whether he would look the other way if Rivera sent him unqualified workers, as Isensee alleged Lantigua did often.
“I understand that maybe out of fear, that you didn’t oppose the previous mayor when people were placed (in jobs) without qualifications,” Maldonado said. “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Council members seem split
The council meeting tomorrow is shaping up to be another rough one for Rivera and for Park, but the outcome could be worse for Park because she resigned as Lowell’s Economic Development Director to take the planning job in Lawrence. A defeat could leave her unemployed only a month after coming to Lawrence.
On Friday, the councilors who could be reached or earlier expressed an opinion appeared to be split 4-4 on Park’s nomination.
Her fate may rest with Councilor Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez. She did not return phone calls last week on how she would vote. But she opposed Isensee’s nomination to lead Public Works on the grounds that Rivera improperly handled it, which is the same allegation Rivera now faces with his city planner nominee.
Councilors Maldonado, Aquino and Sandy Almonte voted against Park in the Personnel Committee. Councilor Estela Reyes said she also will vote against her unless Rivera stops paying her the stipend. Rivera the stipend is justified because Park would do work beyond her job specifications, including helping to reorganize the city’s development departments.
Councilor Roger Twomey voted for Park in the Personnel Committee. Councilor Eileen Bernal said she also will support Park. Councilors Marc Laplante and Kendrys Vasquez said they are leaning toward voting for her.
As in debate over Isensee’s nomination, the specter of former Mayor Lantigua hovers over the debate around Park’s nomination.
“One hundred days ago, you were sitting on this side of the podium fighting very strongly against these kinds of things by the prior administration,” Councilor Sandy Almonte told Rivera at the Personnel Committee meeting last week, referring to the city salary Park began collecting before Rivera sent her nomination to the council. “There was a lot of chastising (when) the past administration did this. This was supposed to be a fresh beginning.”
Rivera and Personnel Director Frank Bonet reminded the council that the charter permits mayors to make temporary appointments and to negotiate stipends. They said Park was told in writing that her nomination would need council approval.
Bonet also noted that many of the department heads who served under Lantigua and former Mayor Michael Sullivan went on the city payroll before the two mayors sent the council their appointments. Among them, Sullivan’s Economic Development chief, Tom Schiavone, served for nearly eight years without a vote by the council, Bonet said.
Nevertheless, Rivera apologized to the committee for not submitting Park’s nomination sooner, but said haste is needed because the city has been “undefended” against developers in the four years since Lantigua fired former Planning Director Michael Sweeney.
“We can’t move at this slow pace,” Rivera told the committee. “Vote (Park) down and we’ll be in the same place we’ve been for 10 years — nowhere.”
In interviews last week, Rivera and Maldonado disputed that the council has divided into Rivera and Lantigua factions.
“What’s right is right, wrong is wrong, in any administration,” Maldonado said. “And responsible councilors are going to raise a flag regardless of who is mayor.”
“I don’t think there’s a camp in there looking to undermine whatever we do, just like there wasn’t a camp in there that was looking to undo whatever the former mayor did,” Rivera said. “This is a smart council. They’re going to do what’s right for the city.”