By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — One of New England’s largest developers was ready to do business with the city on July 16, when it was scheduled to ask the Conservation Commission for an approval needed to leverage state tax credits to help finance the construction of 65 apartments at Malden Mills.
But two seats on the five-member commission have been vacant for as long as two years, so when a third member called in sick that night, the agency lost its quorum and was unable to hear the application from Winn Development. With the clock running out for the company to apply for the tax credits, Conservation Commission chairman Tennis Lilly scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, the day before Winn Development’s deadline for applying.
“Hopefully, there won’t be issues that arise,” said Vincent Manzi, a lawyer for the developer, who is seeking a ruling from the commission that stormwater runoff from the project won’t worsen drainage problems on the site, which is in a flood zone.
It’s a story playing out with increasing frequency in a city whose boards, commissions and authorities are hobbled by vacancies and served by members whose appointments expired years ago, but are extending their service until their seats are filled, as allowed by state law. All but a handful of the seats are filled by the mayor with the approval of the City Council. A few are filled by the state.
Today, 16 of 20 seats on four key city agencies — the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission and Lawrence Redevelopment Authority — are either vacant or are holding onto their quorums only because members whose terms have expired are continuing to serve while waiting for the mayor to act. On the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board, every seat is vacant or held by a member whose appointment has run out.
The damage done when agencies that exercise vast power over life in the city and preside over several of its most important institutions are left to languish played out dramatically on the Licensing Board last year. The three-member board was reduced to one member for about two months after the death of its chairman, causing it to shut its door on applicants looking for one of the many licenses issued by the board, which has life-and-death power over restaurants, bodegas, nightclubs, car dealerships and other businesses, including any that sell milk.
The Licensing Board’s senior member and acting chairwoman is now Mayra Lantigua — Mayor William Lantigua’s ex-wife — whose term expired six years ago.
Mayor Lantigua did not return a phone call yesterday.
“There hasn’t been a lot of effort on behalf of the city to fill the Conservation Commission or any of the other boards,” said Lilly, a member of the commission for 12 years (his most recent appointment expired in 2011). “Municipal boards have a lot of power. They exercise an enormous amount of authority over day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts aspects of daily life. If you’re a developer and you have a project, maybe it’s getting into fall, you don’t what to get your permit issued in the middle of winter. You need to get your permit issued in a timely fashion.”
The Planning Board will all but shut down after its next meeting Aug. 7, when member Alice Baker moves out of the city and a second of the board’s five seats become vacant. (Baker’s appointment expired July 20, 2011). With just three remaining members — all of whose terms have been expired for as long as three years — the board will be unable to issue special permits, which represent the great bulk of its work and require four votes to approve.
“It just stalls the process for people,” said planner James Blatchford (his appointment expired Saturday). “When you have a business and you want to put up a sign, either you have to do it illegally or you have to wait. (Lantigua) has had four years to fill all the boards, not just the Planning Board. That’s just one of the things that mayors can do — have people involved on these local boards who are trying to improve the city.”
City Council President Frank Moran and Councilor Sandy Almonte, who chairs the council’s Personnel Committee, could not be reached yesterday.
“Many people may not realize how important these boards are to the city, whether they’re dealing with development, wetlands, signs,” said Councilor Marc Laplante, who resigned as one of the five members on the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority after Lantigua appointed another city councilor to the agency, which Laplante said made it top-heavy with councilors. “These are important decisions made by unelected individuals appointed by the mayor and approved by the council and if these positions remain unfilled, we are hamstringing progress in the city.”
Keeping a city’s boards and commissions up and running can be one of the most challenging tasks for any mayor given the numbers of appointments involved. Lawrence has more than a dozen of the agencies, which oversee everything from human rights to voting to the airport. Each has between three and seven members. The job is especially challenging in Lawrence, an intensely poor city with a large number of immigrants for whom civic duty is not always a priority. The task of filling seats on agencies such as the Licensing Board and the Board of Registrars is harder still because they must have bi-partisan membership. Only 6 percent of the city’s 37,000 registered voters are Republican.
Nevertheless, Sal Tabit, a lawyer who represents several bars and restaurants in Lawrence, said the risks can be high when a city neglects its boards and commissions.
“People do have a right to be heard on these things,” Tabit said when the Licensing Board was able to hear a request for a liquor license by a restaurant he represents only after Lantigua made an emergency appointment — which was later deemed illegal — hours before the board’s Sept. 26, 2012, meeting. “It’s entirely speculative at this point, but I can see a situation where, if you have a person or a business that goes months without the ability to be heard and they can prove it affected their businesses negatively, I can see (suing for) damages, sure.”