By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua laid off 23 firefighters in his first months in office, when he also shut the Bailey Street firehouse and called on residents to videotape firefighters on the job to document their alleged misconduct.
The former leader of the firefighters union denounced the allegation as “an out-and-out travesty” and firefighters heckled the mayor – waving their cell phones as if they were recording him — as he walked into a meeting with fire officials from neighboring municipalities.
Since then, Lantigua has rehired all but a handful of the firefighters, given the department’s 130 union members 2.5 percent annual raises, reopened a firehouse and toned down his rhetoric.
Late Wednesday, the union representing the Fire Department’s 130 uniformed and civilian employees voted by a wide margin to endorse Lantigua for re-election.
Union president Eric Zahn estimated the vote to be about 20-6, although he said no formal count was taken because the support for Lantigua was overwhelming.
The vote reflected the mayor’s ability to use the power and perks of his office to make things right with the union, as well as the lingering unease some firefighters have for Lantigua’s opponent, City Councilor Daniel Rivera. In 2010, Rivera asked all of the city’s public safety unions to voluntarily reopen their contracts to find givebacks as a way to avoid more layoffs, and last year he said the city could not afford the raises Lantigua negotiated with the firefighters and voted against them.
Only 20 percent of the union’s 130 members attended the union meeting at the Relief’s In on Wednesday night, when they questioned Lantigua and Rivera separately behind closed doors for about an hour each. Still, the endorsement was a comeback for a mayor once vilified by the firefighters and it came amid signs that his relationship with other public safety unions also is thawing as the Nov. 5 election approaches.
“The tone of the conversation was, that was in the past,” Zahn said about the comments Lantigua made about firefighters in his first year in office, when the mayor also questioned whether some of them were setting fires to retaliate against the layoffs.
“We’re looking forward,” Zahn said. “We’re not looking to rehash the past.”
Zahn said Lantigua told the union at Wednesday’s closed meeting that his earlier comments were “unfortunate,” but said he did not apologize for them.
Rivera said his discussion with firefighters before their vote indicated they misunderstood his request that they reexamine their contract four years ago to help the city through a fiscal crisis. He said former union president Pat Driscoll accused him of trying to break the union, which Rivera denied.
Driscoll did not return phone calls yesterday.
“These 20 people forgot that this is the mayor who treated them awfully the first year,” Rivera said about the union’s lopsided vote for Lantigua. “This is the mayor who called them lazy. This is the mayor who told people to follow them with video cameras.”
The firefighters union endorsed one of their own, Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, a longtime Lawrence firefighter, in the Sept. 17 preliminary election. He came in a distant fourth.
The city’s two police unions did not endorse a candidate in the preliminary election and are not expected to endorse one in the November election, but new contracts and other developments have helped soften the relationship between the mayor and police as well, after a similarly rocky first year that sharply divided the department into two camps.
Lantigua laid off 40 cops along with the firefighters in 2010, when he also demoted the department’s popular deputy chief and replaced him with a sergeant who managed the mayor’s campaign the year before (Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla last year was indicted on corruption charges). Also in 2010, Lantigua blamed cops for the increase in car thefts that followed the layoffs and suggested some of them are lazy.
Like the firefighters, the police rallied to their own defense and denounced the mayor.
“This illustrates once again the disdain the mayor has toward public safety employees,” Capt. Scott McNamara, president of the superior officer’s union, said at the time. “… he suggests the hardest-working police officers in the commonwealth are lazy. That accusation is patently false, and the mayor knows it.”
McNamara – who applied to Lantigua to be chief of the department following former Chief John Romero’s retirement last month – has personally endorsed Lantigua, contributing $350 to his political committee and attending campaign events with him. He did not return a phone call yesterday.
The Lawrence teachers union is expected to announce its endorsement for mayor over the next few days. Dozens of city teachers have resigned or been forced from their jobs since the state took control of city schools two years ago, citing their chronic underachievement and blaming, at least in part, what it said was Lantigua’s inept oversight of the system as chairman of the School Committee.