LAWRENCE — One resident said voter fraud is an "illness" in the city, and another said members of the city's Hispanic population "fear" repercussions from authorities if they speak out against injustices.
Both were among residents who spoke yesterday before a state civil rights advisory committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which held a daylong public hearing at Lawrence Public Library.
The commission picked the heavily Hispanic city to hear testimony from citizens and public officials on a variety of issues, including bilingual education, alleged civil rights violations, police brutality and voter fraud. About a dozen people were in the audience for an afternoon session where residents were allowed to address concerns.
Voter fraud is a city "illness" that runs rampant during elections, Chally Ramos said in calling for an investigation of the city's election division.
Ramos said for at least eight years there have been rumors of election improprieties, including illegal voting, absentee ballot manipulation, and people with criminal backgrounds working in voting precincts during elections.
"I urge the panel to look into this. ... This illness in this city has to stop," said Ramos, who ran unsuccessfully in last month's special election for state representative.
Lawrence, a city of 71,000 people, has been sued a number of times over alleged voting rights violations and has faced allegations of police brutality.
Mayor William Lantigua last night said he welcomed the advisory committee at the outset of the hearings, but did not attend any of the sessions, which lasted from about 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
He said several city officials attended at his urging.
"I'm glad they are here, but I wish they were here eight to 10 years ago," he said.
The mayor defended the city against Ramos' allegations, dismissing them as politically motivated.
"At every election, the loser is always alleging election fraud, but they are never able to produce hard evidence," Lantigua said. "When they win, they go home happy and quiet."
Lantigua said Ramos "not only lost the election, he was embarrassed."
"His only way to save face is to allege election fraud," Lantigua said of Ramos.
Last year, Lantigua became the first Hispanic to be elected mayor of a Massachusetts community.
Meanwhile, resident Francisco Brea, a former member of the city's Human Rights Commission, told the panel that people in Lawrence "are in fear that anything could happen to them."
He explained that the majority of immigrants here today are from Latin American countries where they are not allowed to speak freely. This population needs to be empowered and encouraged to voice their opinions.
"I hope this is not the only visit you will have here in Lawrence," Brea told the panel.
The advisory panel reports its findings to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
School Committee member Frank Bonet, who also is the city's personnel director, and Mary Lou Bergeron, the acting school superintendent, were among experts who spoke to the panel about bilingual education during a morning session. The panel hopes to determine whether bilingual students placed in English immersion classes receive the assistance and services they need and are entitled to under state and federal civil rights laws.
Later in the day, police Chief John Romero and Howard Friedman, a civil rights attorney, answered questions about civil rights issues.
Despite great effort and improvement over the past decade, Romero said "allegations of unfair treatment and misconduct do arise in a city and department of our size from time to time."
He pointed to 41 positions lost in recent years in the Police Department, including 24 officers laid off on June 30 due to budget cuts. Nearly half of the officers laid off were minorities, which severely impacted department efforts to have its police force reflective of the community it serves, Romero said.
He said despite the "significant setback," the department will continue fair treatment training, including mandatory completion of the Department of Justice's cultural awareness and competency program, Romero said.
Friedman lauded Romero's work, describing him as a "good police chief" who's willing to meet and listen to concerns. Yet, there are still significant civil rights issues facing the Police Department, which include the department's formal manual, which hasn't been updated since 1970. Also, the police station itself is "hopelessly out of date," Friedman said.
The front steps are deteriorating and there's no front lobby for people to wait. The chief's office has three desks in it and when the chief needs to have a confidential meeting he has to ask people to leave, Friedman noted.
Romero agreed saying the police station "is not a friendly location."
However, he said he believes Lantigua is committed "to trying to get a new police station."
When asked by David Harris, the advisory committee's chairman, what the most pressing department need is right now, Romero said money.
The department's current roster of 110 officers is not enough to police a city of Lawrence's size, Romero said.
Staff writer Mark E. Vogler contributed to this report.