By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Almost six years after her two-year appointment to the Licensing Board expired, a woman who may be married to Mayor William Lantigua still sits on the board and was recently appointed – by the mayor – to chair it.
Mayra Lantigua’s promotion to board chairwoman could more than double her stipend for service from $2,400 to $5,000 a year, which has some city councilors questioning whether the mayor has violated anti-nepotism laws. They also question whether the appointment is legal since a city law bars Licensing Board members from serving as chairperson if their term has expired.
“She might be a good person, but this doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Councilor Daniel Rivera, the only candidate in the race for mayor besides Lantigua. “A board that’s so important to all the issues we have in the city, you want to make sure all the members are beyond reproach.”
Mayra Lantigua was first named to fill an unexpired seat on the board on April 14, 2005 by then-Mayor Michael Sullivan at a time when she was married to Lantigua, who was then a state representative.
The mayor now lives with City Hall secretary Lorenza Ortega, and last year claimed she was his new wife, but he has never been clear about whether he and Mayra Lantigua have divorced.
Mayra Lantigua’s term on the Licensing Board expired June 1, 2007. Although mayors Sullivan and Lantigua never reappointed her, she has continued to serve under a state law that allows members of local boards whose terms have expired to stay on until they are reappointed or replaced.
But Mayra Lantigua’s ascension to chair the Lawrence Licensing Board after the death of its former chairman late last year raises new questions about her tenure. The questions include whether the promotion adds to any conflict of interest that may have existed before Mayor Lantigua promoted the mother of three of his children to chair the board.
Councilor Marc Laplante said boosting Mayra Lantigua’s stipend would be a conflict for the Lantiguas regardless of whether they are divorced, because the couple have three children, including some that still live with their mother.
Lantigua once argued that the public compensation he arranged for a former wife by getting her a job as a city traffic clerk should be a credit against the child support he owed her. In 1992, 18 years before he became mayor, Lantigua spent a night in the Middleton jail after his unpaid child support reached $26,142.
“He’s getting personal benefits from her getting that position,” Laplante said of the mayor gaining due to Mayra Lantigua’s post as chair of the Licensing Board.
Laplante is considering challenging Lantigua in his bid for a second mayoral term this year.
“There are laws on the books called anti-nepotism laws that expressly state that a hiring authority cannot appoint their own family members to jobs, regardless of how much the compensation is or how little,’’ Laplante said.
The Eagle-Tribune could not learn Friday whether Mayra Lantigua is chairing the Licensing Board in an acting capacity or whether she is receiving the extra $2,600 stipend. She and the mayor did not respond to messages left with their secretaries at City Hall.
City Clerk William Maloney could not be reached to determine whether Lantigua filed a written notice that he had chosen Mayra Lantigua to chair the Licensing Board, as required by local law. The board’s agendas began listing Mayra Lantigua as chairperson as early as Oct. 24, a month after the death of former chairman Rick Fielding on Sept. 9.
Mayra Lantigua’s appointment raises a second issue beyond the alleged conflict of interest: She may be chairing the agency in violation of a local law barring Licensing Board members whose terms have run out from serving as chair.
That question could pose another showdown between the mayor, the city attorney and City Council over Licensing Board appointments.
Last year, City Attorney Charles Boddy and the council derailed four successive nominations to the Licensing Board that Lantigua made as he tried to fill Fielding’s seat and a second seat held by Tom Murphy, whose term expired Dec. 31, 2011. Boddy and the council said the nominees, or the process Lantigua used to make the nominations, were technically flawed.
On Friday, several councilors said they would not vote to confirm Mayra Lantigua if the mayor tried to reappoint her, citing the potential conflict of interest.
Of the four city councilors who returned phone calls Friday, only Estela Reyes said she would support giving Mayra Lantigua another term. Three councilors, including Laplante, three said they would not.
“I don’t think I would do that,” said Councilor Roger Twomey, although he added that he would not make a final decision until he is presented with a nomination. He called on the mayor “to send her name down or send some other name down.”
Twomey is a former chairman of the Licensing Board and a former chairman of the City Council’s Personnel Committee.
Former Mayor Sullivan, who appointed Mayra Lantigua to her two-year-term in 2005, said Friday she should have resigned Jan. 4, 2010, the day Lantigua was inaugurated.
Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, said Mayra Lantigua’s service is a local matter and would not comment on it.
Meanwhile, as Mayla Lantigua presides over the agency that decides who gets liquor licenses in Lawrence, William Lantigua continues to use the city’s bars and nightclubs as a base for his political operation. Most recently, Lantigua held two campaign events at Rio’s Bar and Grill on Appleton Way, including one in December at which he announced his re-election.
The Licensing Board is best known for issuing liquor licenses, giving it life-or-death control over local bars and nightclubs. The board also regulates a wide range of businesses that include package stores, car dealerships, bodegas, boarding houses and any business that sells milk.