EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 12, 2014


Rivera on the fast-track to remaking Lawrence

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE - An aide cracks open the door to Mayor Daniel Rivera’s corner office at City Hall, interrupting his meeting with state probation officials and acting city Police Chief James Fitzpatrick, and motions him to the hall outside.

The mayor steps out. After a moment, he reopens the door and calls Fitzpatrick out of the meeting.

The aide, Kate Reilly, tells the two that police had just interrupted what they thought was a home invasion by an armed man beside the Rollins School on Howard Street, prompting a lockdown at the school. Three other schools in the area also were locking down, mindful of the slashing rampage at a Pennsylvania school two days earlier by a 16-year-old who stabbed 22 people.

This time, the drama ends quickly and without injuries, although police shot and killed a dog at the home. Police arrested a man with a gun in front of the school, the lockdowns were lifted and Rivera returned to the meeting.

The event was a 10-minute blip in Rivera’s workday yesterday, his 100th as mayor. Like most of the 99 before it, the day included a dose of crisis management and a sharp focus on issues of public safety, education and re-crafting the battered image of a city that in recent years became known for official corruption, violent crime and a mayor – defeated by Rivera in November - with an alienating leadership style whose former chief of staff was sent to jail for 18 months last week. Former Mayor William Lantigua’s deputy police chief goes on trial on other corruption charges next month.

Rivera emphasized the need to rebuild the city’s reputation in another mid-morning meeting in his office yesterday, when he hosted a group of eight juniors from the Greater Lawrence Technical School who were touring City Hall as part of a lesson in civics.

After discussing the city’s immigrant history, City Hall lore, what drove him to public service and where to get the best college education (he recommended his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts), Rivera told the students that where ever they go to college, they should consider themselves ambassadors for the city.

“It’s important for you guys to go out and do something great to boost our image,” Rivera told them. “It’s important for us to keep in mind that everyone’s watching.”

Beyond remaking the city’s image, which Rivera says is fundamental to attracting developers, the tasks for the new mayor of the state’s poorest city are huge. Lawrence’s 14 percent unemployment is among the highest of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts. Its per capita income of about $17,000 is the lowest. One in four city children live in poverty. Abandoned mills along both sides of the Merrimack River contain millions of square feet of empty space. A state receiver runs the public schools and a state fiscal overseer has veto power over city spending.

Rivera stepped into those challenges 100 days ago with a promise to be bold, a word he used more than a dozen times in his inaugural address to an overflow crowd at Lawrence High School.

Yesterday, during a few minutes of down time between meetings and events, he responded to a question about his accomplishments so far by handing a reporter a bulleted, neatly typed list with 108 entries: hired six cops, a comptroller, a water commissioner and development and planning directors; restocked the boards and commissions that had gone fallow under Lantigua; met with Gov. Deval Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and John Markey; helped manage the response to six winter storms, including the one that struck as he was taking the oath of office Jan. 2; sued the owner of the former Merrimac Paper mill to force him to demolish the ruins of a building destroyed in a fire; helped bring back the St. Patrick’s Day parade and instituted a dress code at City Hall, resulting in a lawsuit from a union.

His first budget is in the works, due next month. He’s promised no property tax increase.

Rivera’s speed on some issues prompted City Council President Modesto Maldonado to protest that the new mayor sometimes hopscotches over proper procedure and process in his rush to get things done, including when he put a new planning director on the payroll before the council even received her nomination.

Rivera noted the appointment is temporary pending the council’s approval and acknowledged his administration is “trying to work not at the speed of government.”

“There’s work to do,” he said. “We need a planning director. We’ve been woefully under-represented on housing in this community, on transportation, all kinds of stuff.”

“I know the mayor wants to do things as fast as possible,” Maldonado said earlier this week. “I don’t blame him. In my conversations with him, I explained I’ll do everything possible in my power to move things forward as fast as possible, but we can’t avoid following proper process.”

Rivera’s 100th day in office yesterday began at 8 a.m., when he met with public works employees and representatives from Groundwork Lawrence to coordinate 2,000 volunteers expected to participate in a cleanup of city streets and parks as the city marks Earth Day later this month.

Ninety minutes later, Rivera, 43, was across the city reading “From Acorns to Zoos,” a children’s book about the alphabet, to three dozen 3- and 4-year-olds at Little Sprouts early education center at the Riverwalk complex on Merrimack Street.

“My name is Danny – Mayor Danny,” Rivera tells the toddlers, who give him an uncertain look but cheer anyway.

He takes a seat and begins reading, but jumps up a half dozen times to imitate the animals the book describes. Dressed in a conservative gray suit and a gray tie clipped neatly to a blue shirt, Mayor Danny swings his arm from his face like an elephant, hoots like an owl, whinnies like a horse and roars like a lion.

More cheers ensue.

“He’s amazing,” Madison Ramirez, 4, said as Rivera shook hands and left for his next appointment, a little late. “I love when he reads books.”

As Rivera enters City Hall 20 minutes later, a 40-year resident flags him down to ask for help obtaining U.S. citizenship.

The conversation, all in Spanish, ends with smiles and a handshake. Rivera heads inside to meet with the technical school students, which is followed by the meeting with Police Chief Fitzpatrick and the probation officials to discuss assigning former inmates released on probation to do community service work in Lawrence.

Rivera promises to clear the way for the project with the union representing the city’s public works employees, who blocked an earlier attempt to assign the former inmates to do landscaping, painting and trash pickups at city parks and buildings and at Bellevue Cemetery. Rivera also told the probation officials he will put one or two of the former inmates to work in his office “as long as they can wear a tie.”

As the meeting ends, Reilly, the mayoral aide, hands Rivera a roast beef sandwich and chips from Heavenly Donuts on Essex Street. A few steps behind her are three veterans, including Antonio Molina, who received a Purple Heart after he was shot in the head by a sniper in Vietnam in 1965.

The three represent the Puerto Rican Veterans Monument Square Association, which recently erected a $400,000 bronze monument in South Boston commemorating Puerto Ricans who served in the armed forces. Rivera – who is half Puerto Rican and a veteran of the first Iraq War – is meeting with the group to discuss his role at a fundraiser in Boston on June 21 to raise $50,000 still owed for the monument.

Next through the door are police captains Scott McNamara and Denis Pierce, along with acting Chief Fitzpatrick, to discuss strategies for combating the recent increase in home invasions and stolen vehicles.

Rivera directed a reporter out of the room, but afterwards said that along with hiring the eight additional cops, he’ll be putting more unmarked cars on the street. He also described the instructions he gave the three top cops.

“My message to everybody, including them, is, ‘Don’t tell me we don’t have enough resources. I know that. The question is, what are we doing to be smarter, to be better at this?’

Fitzpatrick, who has said he will apply for a full time appointment to the chief’s job when Rivera posts it, credited the new mayor with improving relations between headquarters and City Hall.

“It’s definitely for the better,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “There’s more open communication. We have weekly department-head meetings. There’s more accountability by the departments. He’s streamlining processes. There’s more open-mindedness.”

As Fitzpatrick, McNamara and Pierce depart Rivera’s office, four lawyers who have been waiting outside enter to discuss a legal issue that Rivera won’t describe. Before waving them in, Rivera expands a bit on what he told the technical school students about why he ran for the City Council, where he served for four years, and then for mayor.

“It’s very personal, this work,” he said. “But I don’t take this stuff home with me, so I sleep like a baby. But I don’t want anyone to forget what’s at stake – the lives and property of 77,000 residents.”