By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — At campaign rallies, in interviews and radio ads and especially on his Facebook page, former Mayor William Lantigua regularly pointed to the streets he paved and the potholes he filled as reason number one for his re-election.
Dozens of streets in every neighborhood got fresh coats of asphalt during Lantigua’s four years in office, but the work intensified significantly last July and August as September’s preliminary election approached, when he would face five challengers.
In the 15 days between July 22 and Aug. 6, the bills from just one of the companies hired for the paving jobs reached almost $400,000, records show.
The bills from Highway Rehabilitation Corp. of New York might have continued, but the city’s purchasing agent slammed the brakes on the work when the invoices began arriving on Aug. 6, noting that company’s contract with the city capped the work at $84,979.
“This email shall serve as notice that you are to cease any and all work in Lawrence immediately,” Purchasing Agent Rita Brousseau told the David Capelle, Highway Rehab’s marketing officer, in an email that morning. “No authorization was given to your company to perform any additional work, therefore, the city will not pay you for such.”
The $294,444 overrun occurred at Lantigua’s direction, according to Andrew Wall, the city engineer who monitored the work, and Acting Public Works Director John Isensee, who said he was “pushed aside” as Lantigua personally directed the paving projects, even as the overruns piled up street by street.
Isensee said neither Lantigua or Wall made him aware that the work was busting the budget and that it had been authorized without the new round of bidding state law requires whenever a public project exceeds its initial contract price by 25 percent.
“Clearly, the mayor was the driving force in deciding which streets and how many got done, which is generally not the practice in this department,” Isensee said yesterday about the extra paving work Lantigua ordered in the months leading up to the Sept. 17 preliminary election. “Typically, we (at DPW) decide what needs to be worked on and what methods should be used. For the most part, that wasn’t followed.”
Isensee added that Wall “was taking his marching orders from the mayor.”
“In this instance, the mayor was driving the boat, so I went where the mayor wanted to go,” Wall said.
Mayors sometimes request to have a street paved, but Wall said Lantigua was the only mayor to take over day-to-day direction of the work during the 17 years he’s administered the state aid the city receives for it.
“No other mayor was on the streets, checking up every day, following me around, putting streets on and off the list,” Wall said. “No other mayor got directly involved. They left that up to (DPW directors) and myself.”
“It was an election year,” Wall said when pressed to explain Lantigua’s interest.
Lantigua did not respond to a voice mail left on his cell phone yesterday.
As the preliminary election neared, Lantigua found even more money to pave the streets beyond the $294,444 overrun to Highway Rehab that he allegedly authorized. In the spring, the council approved his request to spend another $500,000 from an earlier budget surplus for paving, which was in addition to the $1.2 million in state aid for paving that the city already was spending last year, according to Budget Director Mark Ianello.
As the multi-million-dollar projects progressed, mile after mile of newly paved streets were affixed with ubiquitous blue signs bearing Lantigua’s name, reminding residents of who was filling the potholes. Lantigua regularly updated his Facebook page with photos of paving equipment and their crews on the streets, often with images of himself, wearing a suit and tie and appearing in charge. In one week in April, 62 photos of the Jackson Street repaving appeared on the former mayor’s Facebook page.
The effort resonated with voters.
In interviews with five voters as they headed into the Arlington Middle School to vote in the preliminary election on Sept. 17, all five said the improved streets influenced their votes.
“I just like the job he’s doing,” said Nara Bernard, a health care administrator. “My street is beautiful, for one.”
“Lantigua, because of the fact that he’s been repairing the streets,” said Carlos Santos, an assembly line worker.
In a series of interviews yesterday, Mayor Daniel Rivera, Budget Director Ianello and the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, Robert Nunes, said the city couldn’t pay the $294,444 overrun even if it wanted to because of the state law requiring localities to go back to bid whenever a project exceeds the initial contract price by more than 25 percent.
“If this contractor did work at the behest of the former mayor without a contract, that’s a liability he took on,” Rivera said. “Either you have a contract or you don’t.”
The Andover lawyer representing Highway Rehab said Purchasing Agent Brousseau’s warning that the city would not pay more than the $84,979 that the company bid for the job “came as a shock considering the close supervision and instruction (the company) received from Mr. Wall.”
“Highway Rehab believed that Mr. Wall was authorized to order extra work pursuant to the contact, and thus continued to work as instructed by him,” the lawyer, Matthew Caffrey, said in a Jan. 13 email to City Council President Modesto Maldonado. He asked that the council ask the state Legislature to allow the city to pay the bill for the extra work by overriding the law that says it should have been publicly bid.
Yesterday, Caffrey would not say whether Lantigua joined Wall, the city engineer, in assuring Highway Rehab that the city would pay for paving work beyond what was called for in its July 1 contract.
The City Council’s Budget Committee will consider the company’s request tonight.
Mayor Rivera said he would work with the council on the issue. He said he believed Lantigua’s top motive in ordering the extra paving work was his re-election.
“I don’t think anyone that was witness to the timing and the speed of the paving would come to any other conclusion,” Rivera said. “For me, the bigger issue here is that, again, there was something that should have been done appropriately and through the right channels and it wasn’t. That’s not going to happen under my watch.”