EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 6, 2012

Inspector placed on paid leave

By Keith Eddings keddings@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — LAWRENCE — A longtime building inspector with a troubled work history was put on paid leave yesterday for allegedly failing to report $33.3 million in new development he approved over the last two years, which cost the city just over $300,000 in uncollected taxes.

Lawrence Hester, a city employee for about 30 years and an inspector for about 25, joined a list of at least four other city employees to go on paid leave over the last year or so, including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Added to the list, Hester’s salary of about $54,000 will bring the total this cash-strapped city is now paying annually to stay-at-home employees to about $324,000.

Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette, Hester’s boss, did not return phone calls seeking details about Hester’s leave and the allegations against him, including whether Hester had a motive for allegedly failing to report the building permits or whether the failure was an oversight.

In all, Hester allegedly failed to report 349 building permits to assessors in 2010 and 2011.

The failure was uncovered last month by Breda Daou, the chairwoman of the city’s Board of Assessment, who reported it to a Sept. 19 meeting of the city’s top financial officials, including Mayor William Lantigua and Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer. Nunes disclosed the failure in letter to the City Council yesterday, which he followed up with an angry statement emailed to the media.

“There is no excuse for the negligent practices and lax oversight that has apparently festered for years in the building department,” Nunes said in the e-mail. “Not only is this a flagrant affront to the taxpayers of Lawrence who can ill afford lost property values, it endangers the many advances we have made to strengthen Lawrence’s finances — three balanced city budgets and improved bond ratings.”

Nunes said the city will have to write off $100,000 in taxes that should have been collected from 47 property owners in 2010, representing permits allowing $10.3 million worth of improvements and new development that was not reported.

He said the error was discovered in time to allow the city to collect the other $200,000 from 302 property owners last year, who made $23 million worth of improvements and development that were not reported.

Nunes also called for several reforms to the way the Building Department does business, including a few that already are underway. Among them, the department has begun work to replace its archaic paper record-keeping systems with computer software that will be integrated with other departments. The city also will hire outside auditors to review department practices and audit permits it issued before 2010, which Nunes said will expose “the full extent of Lawrence’s potential losses and determine if any additional remedies are needed. “

At least two city councilors said that’s not enough.

Daniel Rivera, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said Blanchette should resign or Mayor Lantigua should fire him.

“Someone was asleep at the switch for at least two years,” Councilor Marc Laplante said. “There seems to be a pattern since the mayor’s been in office. It reminds us that it’s important we hire good, qualified people rather than friends and family.”

Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette is a former building inspector and the brother of Patrick Blanchette, a former City Council president who lost a mayoral primary to Lantigua in 2009 and then endorsed Lantigua in the general election. Lantigua named him director of economic development after taking office in January 2010.

Lantigua and Hester could not be reached yesterday. Peter Blanchette and Nunes did not return phone calls.

City Council President Frank Moran has asked Peter Blanchette, Budget Director Mark Ianello and John Isensee, the public works director who oversees the Building Department, to attend the council’s next meeting on Oct. 16 to explain how $300,000 in property taxes fell through the cracks at a time when the city was laying off cops and firefighters.

The Eagle-Tribune yesterday filed a request under the state’s Public Records Law for copies of the 349 building permits that were not forwarded to tax assessors.

Hester, 58, has a long history of suspensions, administrative leaves and one termination by previous mayors, and an equally long history of getting them overturned. Former Mayor Patricia Sullivan suspended Hester several times for a total of 10 days during her single term, which ended in 2001, but each was overturned because the city failed to follow collective bargaining procedures.

Former Mayor Michael Sullivan fired Hester in August 2006, citing numerous complaints against him, including insubordination, harassment of co-workers, misuse of vacation time, abuse of sick days and roughshod treatment of the businesses he inspected, which Sullivan said was characterized by “aggressive, rude, arrogant, belligerent and obnoxious behavior.”

A hearing officer ordered Hester reinstated, in part because the city did not call the businesses owners who filed the complaints against him to testify at the hearing.

Hester also has a history of filing civil service and discrimination grievances against the city. Few, if any, have stuck.