EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 30, 2012

Merrimack Valley Year in Review

Staff Reports
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — The biggest story of the year came as 2012 was winding down, when the shooting deaths of 20 young children and six adults at a Connecticut school shocked the nation and the world.

On Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother at their home, then took her guns and forced his way into nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

There he killed the children and several school staff members.

Besides its emotional impact on people everywhere, the story hit closer to home with the discovery that Lanza and other members of his family have their roots in Southern New Hampshire and Merrimack Valley, with several still living in this area.

The other stories of the year in the Merrimack Valley included the beginning of an overhaul of the Lawrence public school system, the indictments of two close associates of Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, some surprises in local elections, and the widespread disruption of communications systems due to a fire in a mattress belonging to a homeless person.

Shooter in Newtown school massacre had N.H. ties

As the nation watched in horror on Dec. 14, The Eagle-Tribune confirmed Adam Lanza was born in Kingston in 1992 and that several members of his extended family still live in Southern New Hampshire and Haverhill.

Police said his brother told them Lanza had a “personality disorder.’’ Classmates and others who knew Lanza said he was a bright young man who kept mostly to himself. Investigators are still piecing together his motives for the shootings.

Lanza killed himself after the other shootings, bringing the death total to 28 – the 20 students, six school staffers, Lanza and his mother.

The deaths brought prayer services and vigils in Newtown, the Merrimack Valley, Southern New Hampshire and elsewhere. The deaths also brought a visit from President Obama to Newtown for a prayer service and kicked off a national debate on gun control and the need for better medical treatment for people with mental disorders.

— Bill Cantwell

Mayor Lantigua’s administration under grand jury microscope

A grand jury investigation of Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua and his City Hall administration heated up.

On Sept. 11, Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, his former campaign manager, were indicted on felony bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges.

Degnan is accused of forcing the city’s waste hauler to donate a trash truck to Lantigua’s native country - the Dominican Republic.

Bonilla is the alleged architect of an illegal car swap deal that benefited Lantigua friend and political supporter, Bernardo Pena.

Witnesses called before the grand jury included Lantigua’s live-in girlfriend, Lorenza Ortega, Patrick Blanchette, Lantigua’s top City Hall aide and the late Richard Fielding, chairman of the city’s licensing board.

Earlier this month, Bonilla’s defense attorney filed a motion and accompanying transcript that provided great insight into the Lantigua grand jury.

— Jill Harmacinski

Kathleen O’Connor Ives, Diana DiZoglio are victorious

The 1st Essex State Senate seat, which covers Methuen, Haverhill, Merrimac, Amesbury, Salisbury, Newburyport and part of North Andover, was left vacant in April when Steven Baddour resigned to join a law firm in Boston. Seven people contested the seat — three Democrats, two Republicans and two unenrolled candidates.

Newburyport City Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives won the Democratic nomination over former Methuen Mayor William Manzi and Haverhill businessman Tim Coco and emerged victorious in the Nov. 6 general election, shifting the base of the seat from Methuen, where the past two state senators had called home, to the coast.

In North Andover, State Rep. David Torrisi lost to challenger Diana DiZoglio of Methuen in the Democratic Sept. 6 primary. She then went on to handily defeat North Andover Republican Karin Rhoton, a former School Committee member, in the Nov. 6 general election.

— Doug Moser

Verizon outage highlights problems with infrastructure, homeless

Early on the morning of Aug. 27, a fire broke out under the Central Bridge in Lawrence that would end up severing a major communications line and knock out phone, Internet and TV service to thousands of customers throughout Eastern Massachusetts. Some lost service for two weeks.

It was a blaze that would ultimately show the fragility of our modern-day infrastructure while highlighting the perilous existence of homeless people all over the city.

The fire started in a mattress that had been placed on top of a group of PVC pipes carrying bundles of fiber-optic and copper wires used by Verizon to bring phone, TV and Internet signals to homes all over the region from one of its primary hubs on the other side of the river in Lawrence. The mattress had been placed there by homeless people, using the underside of the bridge as an encampment, complete with furniture, tents, coolers and more.

Firefighters said they think the fire may have been smoldering for hours, which is why it burned through so many of the PVC pipes and damaged so many of the fiber-optic wires and copper cables. Thousands of wires and cables were damaged in the fire.

Residential and commercial TV, phone and Internet users were frustrated even further by an inability to get answers from Verizon customer-service people.

Once they determined the severity of the damage, which was vast, technicians began the pain-staking process of splicing together every fiber-optic cable.

By the weekend of Sept. 8, all but a handful of people had their service restored.

— Bill Kirk

Another challenging year for Lawrence public schools

The image of Lawrence Public Schools took another beating, further reinforcing its reputation as the state’s most troubled and worst performing school district.

Former School Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy was sentenced to 90 days in jail after being convicted on several corruption charges. Witnesses testified at his eight-day trial in March that he used district personnel and resources for personal errands like driving his son around or retrieving trash from his home. He eventually served 60 days, getting 30 days off for good behavior.

In mid-January, the state hired Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley to run the school system and manage its finances, working at the behest of state Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

At the same time, the seven-member School Committee had been stripped of its powers under the state takeover. But Riley suggested they can still play a valuable role as “ambassadors” — keeping the community informed about what’s going on inside the schools.

Riley embarked on a number of measures, including a rigorous review of educators designed to weed out bad teachers or put them on improvement plans. He also hired several outside agencies that run charter schools to run the city’s worst performing schools.

— Mark Vogler

Methuen gets

new mayor

Stephen Zanni was sworn in as William Manzi’s successor Jan. 2. Two days later, Mayor Zanni told The Eagle-Tribune he would closely consider outsourcing the four-employee municipal Information Technology department.

Zanni’s push for IT privatization endured several ups and downs in 2012. After initial rejection from the City Council, he formed an IT subcommittee and with the help of councilors tried again. The issue won’t be decided until early next year.

Zanni took office in January alongside new city councilors Jamie Atkinson, Michael Condon, Thomas Ciulla, Lisa Ferry, Sean Fountain and Ron Marsan and new School Committee members Mary Jean Fawcett, Mark Graziano, Lynne Hajjar Kumm and Deborah Quinn.

All of their two-year terms expire at the end of 2013. Zanni announced Oct. 5 he will run for a second term. Days later, City Council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan confirmed she will consider challenging Zanni for mayor next fall.

Mayor Zanni inherited a $100 million project in the Methuen High School renovation that was threatened in early 2012 by a months-long work stoppage, after the city fired Dimeo Construction as costs began to escalate. A second contractor — Consigli Construction — was hired in the spring and officials maintain the project is on budget and on time for completion by the summer of 2014.

— Brian Messenger

Changes and turmoil for Andover schools

It was a busy year for Andover’s school system, which saw everything from lawsuits and heated contract talks to selecting new school leadership.

School news was dominated in the first half of the year with two school-related battles: a new teacher’s contract and appeals halting work to replace Bancroft Elementary School. Both were resolved by mid-year.

After the Bancroft project was appealed in late 2011, construction began over the summer after all appeals against the project were dropped in April. The new school is slated to open in 2014.

Meanwhile, after the last contract between the School Committee and Andover Education Association ended on Aug. 30, 2010, AEA teachers started the year under Work-to-Rule work action on Jan. 3.

The main sticking point of the contract stalemate was how many periods high school teachers taught per semester. Work to Rule was ended a few months later after a tentative deal was struck.

Chris Lord, a Rhode Island principal, took over as high school principal on July 1.

— Dustin Luca

Last year’s winter that never was had consequences

Whether you blame it on climate change, El Nino or just plain luck, last winter was the fourth warmest on record for the Lower 48, according to an analysis by the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

The extent of the country blanketed with snow was the third smallest since satellites began keeping track 46 years ago. The amount of rain was also below normal.

The Merrimack Valley was no different.

By Jan. 27, less than 8 inches of snow had fallen, according to measurements taken in Boston. The average for that time of year is over 20 inches.

The sparse snowfall meant savings for city and town snowplowing operations.

But, the meager snowfall had a cost.

Every variety of pest came out early last year, including mosquitoes infected with West Nile virus and EEE. Deer ticks were much more active earlier in the year, as were carpenter ants and other household pests. Even black bears came out of hibernation early.

Low snowfall amounts left the ground so dry and the water table so depleted that fire season started two months early.