By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua is nominating two men to the board that conducts city elections, including one who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last month with Lantigua’s support and could now be in a position to decide the mayor’s fate on Nov. 5.
Francisco Surillo gave up his seat on the School Committee to run for an at-large seat on the City Council in the Sept. 17th preliminary election, when he was one of three candidates for whom Lantigua campaigned in a field of 12. Surillo finished seventh in a race that sent the top six finishers on to the Nov. 5 general election.
Beyond any political tie to Lantigua, Surillo has a personal one: His wife is the brother of Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s first campaign for mayor in 2009. Lantigua promoted Bonilla from sergeant to deputy chief just after taking office and last year put him on paid leave from the $140,000-a-year job after he was indicted on corruption charges. Surillo said he and his wife are divorcing.
If approved by the City Council, Surillo would be at least the second member of the Board of Registrars with a political tie to the mayor. The board maintains the city’s voter list and rules on issues that include challenges to voters at the polls and the validity of absentee ballots, powers that can decide the outcome of close races.
Lantigua named Ana Medina to the board in 2011, following an election in which she campaigned tirelessly enough for Lantigua that the mayor singled her out for thanks in his election night victory speech, according to a Spanish language news organization that covered the speech.
Medina is back on the campaign trail for Lantigua this fall, sending him checks, attending his rallies and placing his campaign stickers and signs on her car and home.
Yesterday, Surillo said he is not campaigning for Lantigua, but supports the mayor’s re-election. Lantigua’s Facebook page includes several references to Surillo.
“I like him as mayor,” Surillo said. “I think he’s done a great job.”
“I can (rule) on any contest, regardless of who it is,” he said about whether he could rule impartially on voter challenges that could tilt the mayor’s re-election changes on Nov. 5. “My job is my job.”
Lantigua’s opponent, City Councilor Daniel Rivera, said putting Surillo on the Board of Registrars is “a bad idea.”
“I know Frank Surillo,” Rivera said. “I know he’s a good guy. I just don’t think he’s going to be impartial.”
Lantigua earlier named Surillo the city’s Human Rights Commission. Surillo said his term on that board expires this month.
Surillo is case manager for the Lowell Housing Authority and is married with three grown children.
Lantigua also nominated Ricardo DeJesus to the Board of Registrars.
Dejesus’ resume and qualifications were not available yesterday because Lantigua did not send his application to serve to the City Council when he nominated him. Lantigua also did not send the council Surillo’s application to serve.
Earlier this year, the council blocked, at least temporarily, Lantigua’s nominations to other city boards and commissions because he failed to send their applications to the council when he nominated them.
Nevertheless, the council last night sent the nominations of Surillo and DeJesus to its Personnel Committee, which could complete its review and return the nomination to the full committee for a final vote at its next meeting Nov. 6, one day after the election. The Board of Registrars typically hears voter challenges in the days following elections, deciding whether to add their ballots to the count.
However, in voting to send the nominations to a committee last night, the City Council also voted to ask City Attorney Charles Boddy for advice about whether acting on the Surillo and DeJesus nominations would violate the so-called lame-duck law, which restricts the council and mayor from making appointments in the final months of their terms. Patrick Blanchette, Lantigua’s director of economic development, who is overseeing the process of filling seats on the city’s boards and commissions, has said the law limits the mayor and council from creating new positions and then filling them, but does not restrict them from filling existing vacancies.
Lantigua is chairman of the School Committee, which Surillo serves on.