By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – The Eagle-Tribune last month filed a request under the state’s Public Records Law to examine the envelopes that about 400 voters used to mail absentee ballots to the city’s Election Division for the Sept. 17 preliminary election.
The envelopes then disappeared.
“The city no longer has any documents responsive to your request,” City Attorney Charles Boddy said in his response to the newspaper.
He did not elaborate.
City Clerk William Maloney, who is the city’s top records officer as well as its top election official, did not return several phone calls seeking to learn how the envelopes went missing.
The Eagle-Tribune requested to view the envelopes to gauge how many came from overseas, particularly from Lawrencians in Dominican Republic cities such as Tenares. Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, was indicted last for allegedly pressuring a Lawrence garbage carter to donate trucks to the city.
The state’s Municipal Records Retention Manual requires municipalities to retain all ballots – regular and absentee – for at least 30 days after an election.
In this instance, that clock would have run out Oct. 16. But the clock should have stopped Oct. 4, when The Eagle-Tribune filed its request to examine the envelopes containing the absentee ballots cast in the preliminary election, accrording to a state election official.
Boddy and Maloney did not respond to the initial request for the documents.
On Oct. 16, the newspaper filed an appeal with the Supervisor of Records for Secretary of State William Gavin, asking him to compel the city to provide the documents.
The following day, Boddy responded that the city no longer possessed the records.
Terry French, a senior records and information manager with the Secretary of State’s Record’s Management Unit, said Lawrence has a legal obligation to retain records when there is a pending request to examine them under the Public Records Law.
“If they received a request for the records, they should have held onto them and met that request,” French said. “It’s my understanding that if there’s a request for records, that’s similar to a cease-and-desist order. They have to hold onto the records until that request has been complied with.”
Peter Caruso, a First Amendment lawyer from Andover who represents The Eagle-Tribune and several other news organizations in the region, said maintaining public records is vital for transparent government.
“The preservation of (a record) is required by public officials after they receive a notice of a citizen’s request for its disclosure,” Caruso said. “Otherwise, every time a record is requested, public officials can destroy that record and then state they don’t have it any longer. That would turn the Public Records Law on its head.”
Mayor William Lantigua and City Councilor Daniel Rivera came in first and second in the preliminary election and advanced to the general election on Tuesday.
Lantigua could not be reached Friday.
“You shouldn’t be surprised that took place,” Rivera said. “Bill Maloney will do whatever the mayor asks him to do. If Bill Maloney thought it would benefit the mayor, he did it.”
The Eagle-Tribune has filed a second Public Records Law request seeking any communications or other documents at City Hall that might indicate the fate of the ballots.