LAWRENCE — The city is heading into the April 30 special election for U.S. Senator with a Board of Registrars that is incapacitated by its vacancies, making it unable to oversee the election, rule on ballot challenges or participate in recounts.
The four-member board became disabled with the resignation of Lynne Garcia on Jan. 25, leaving it one member shy of the three needed to conduct business. Garcia’s resignation followed the Nov. 13 resignation of Robert Martin, who quit the Board of Registrars to join city’s Licensing Board in an effort to help end a similar crisis on that board, which also had been unable to conduct business for months because it had no quorum.
“It’s deja vu all over again,” City Councilman Marc Laplante said yesterday about the back-to-back crises over membership on the Licensing Board and the Board of Registrars. “Clearly, the mayor has not learned the lessons that were offered last year when the Licensing Board nominees were appointed. A pattern has now developed. This is no way to run a government.”
Mayor William Lantigua, who is responsible for nominating members to city boards and commissions, did not return a phone call yesterday seeking to learn his plans for filling at least one of the seats by April 30. The process normally requires a review by the City Council’s Personnel Committee and then a vote by the full council, which usually takes at least a month.
Councilor Sandy Almonte, who chairs the committee, said a scramble is on to fill the two seats.
“We’ve been trying to get those seats filled for a long time,” Almonte said. “We’ve been working with the mayor. People just don’t want to go in front of (the council) and be scrutinized. It’s tough to deal with the issues in the city. We’re grasping and trying to make it work, in my view.”
The search may be hobbled by the fact both empty seats must be filled by Republicans, because the two people already serving on the board — Ana Medina and City Clerk William Maloney — are Democrats. In Lawrence, the pool of Republicans is a shallow one: only about 7 percent of the city’s 40,000 or so registered voters are enrolled in the party.
Councilor Laplante notified the office of Secretary of State William Galvin of his concern that Lawrence’s Board of Registrars remains disabled five weeks before the April 30 special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat John Kerry gave up to become Secretary of State earlier this year.
Gov. Deval Patrick appointed his former chief of staff, William “Mo” Cowan, to hold the seat temporarily until voters fill it in the two special elections.
Galvin’s spokesman, Brian McNiff, would not comment on what it would mean if Lawrence’s Board of Registrars remained disabled through the upcoming elections, except to say that he hasn’t seen a similar situation in the 12 years he’s worked for the Secretary of State.
“I can’t comment because we’re still trying to find out what the situation is,” McNiff said.
Lantigua has until noon today — the deadline for adding items to the City Council’s April 2 agenda — to provide the council with the month it typically requires to consider his appointments, if the Board of Registrars is to be restocked in time for the special election on April 30. Otherwise, Lantigua would have to ask the council to short-circuit its review by scheduling emergency meetings to consider the nominees, or he could fill the empty seats with temporary appointments.
Lantigua used both those emergency strategies in a fumbled effort to fill two vacancies on the Licensing Board last year, which caused four successive nominees to fail at the hands of the City Council and City Attorney.
In following up that effort with a second 11th-hour effort to fill a city board in the face of a looming deadline, Lantigua faces a separate issue: if he fills the vacant seats on the Board of Registrars with temporary appointments, the result will be a four-member board without a single member approved by the City Council.
Lantigua gave Medina a temporary appointment on Nov. 3, 2011, nearly 17 months ago. A second seat is held ex officio by City Clerk William Maloney.
Leaving Lawrence without a functioning Board of Registrars as it heads into a high-profile statewide special election could add the city’s troubled history of voting dating to at least the 1990s, when it settled charges of racial discrimination in election practices brought by the U.S. Justice Department by agreeing to several reforms.
The state ordered more reforms in 2006, and two years ago Maloney found a string of “irregularities and misconduct” at a polling place that cost an election warden his job. Most recently, a handwriting expert hired by The Eagle-Tribune concluded that Rafael Tejeda, the senior worker in the city’s Election Division, forged four signatures on nominating petitions that put City Council President Frank Moran on the ballot for the statehouse seat he won in November.
Moran did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment on the Board of Registrars issue.
“This needs to happen at the next City Council meeting for us to be in compliance with state law so that we can run an election and do it properly,” said Councilor Daniel Rivera, who is running for mayor. “It’s a simple process, to appoint people. People are wondering why people are always talking bad about Lawrence. We’ve got to do the basics, and we have to do the basics well. And this is a basic function of government.”