LAWRENCE — City Councilor Daniel Rivera yesterday pledged to keep property taxes flat in his first year as mayor and said he would establish monthly police checks on major roads to help re-establish control over a city he said has become “an open market for drugs.”
In an hour-long interview that the Eagle-Tribune's editorial board scheduled after Mayor William Lantigua declined the newspaper's invitation to a debate, Rivera also pounded Lantigua for failing to attract jobs, improve schools and make the city safer and for blaming the indictments and scandals that have beset his administration on racism.
“If he just woke up to being an Hispanic male in this world, then I can understand his being surprised that he's going to come into some problems, that he's going to meet people that might not give him a fair break,” Rivera said, grabbing onto an issue that many politicians consider the third rail of politics. “But I go into these things knowing I have to work harder, I've got to be cleaner, I have to follow more of the rules to the letter, because I represent a community that has less, that in some circles is expected to do less.”
Rivera's mother is Dominican, as is Lantigua and his mother. Rivera's father is Puerto Rican.
Rivera, a two-term city councilor and the council's vice president, said Latinos living in Lawrence face a second challenge because of the city's perception as an impoverished, lawless place ruled by an indifferent mayor who portrays himself as a victim.
“When you go into the world and you tell people you're from Lawrence, people are like, 'Oh, Lawrence,' ” Rivera said. “So you've got to be better just because you're from Lawrence. And on top of that, because racism exists even in the Obama era, you've got to be prepared for that. And I think (Lantigua) uses that as a crutch. Instead of dealing with the problems, he uses that as a crutch.”
He said the out-of-town image of the city has hobbled its ability to attract development and create jobs. He criticized what he said is Lantigua's failure to try to re-craft the city's image, including his relative silence when a Boston magazine described Lawrence as a “City of the Damned.”
“Whether you think the perception of the negativity around Lawrence is true, perception rules,” Rivera said. “And no one is going to spend a dollar in Lawrence if they perceive that there's a lot of crime, that the mayor doesn't care, that the populace is indifferent and that there's no leadership to control the madness.”
Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking a response.
Rivera said the scandals and indictments that marked Lantigua's first term left him without the “moral character” to lead the Police Department. The four city employees indicted over the last year or so include Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua's 2009 campaign and was indicted on corruption charges two years after Lantigua promoted him from sergeant to deputy chief.
Rivera said several of the administration's efforts have been misdirected, including when inspectors wrote $75 tickets to people who left their garbage bins on the street too long while “we have three-decker and four-decker family houses that kids are living in that haven't been inspected.”
He said Lantigua's leadership of the School Committee also went off track at the start, when he said Lantigua allowed its attention to veer from critical tasks to “all these crazy other things that were not essential.”
“He voted twice not to review (former acting superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron),” Rivera said. “Then the mayor went about talking about a superintendent search for three or four months, then convened a search that failed. That lost opportunity to lead our community caused the state (to take over city schools in 2011).”
Nevertheless, he said, Lawrence “caught lightning in a bottle” when the state put Boston educator Jeffrey Riley in charge of its schools.
With Riley in full control of educating the city's 13,000 public school students and spending the school department's $156 million budget, neither Lantigua or Rivera will have much to do as chairman of the School Committee. Rivera offered no grand plans and few specifics for improving the schools beyond providing new incentives to teachers and better engaging parents and students.
Rivera credited one of the administration's biggest successes — three multi-million-dollar budget surpluses in a row, after a string of deficits that left the city $24 million in debt — to Robert Nunes, the city's state appointed fiscal overseer, and to Mark Ianello, the budget director that Nunes helped bring to Lawrence from Springfield.
At the same time, Rivera also said the city relies too much on successive property tax increases and state and federal aid to provide basic services. He said the dependency deepened yesterday when Lantigua announced a $920,000 grant from the state to hire as many as five cops.
“If there's a problem tomorrow and the state can't give us that money, we can't keep those cops,” he said.
He said he would attract jobs and development by more aggressively marketing what Lawrence has to offer, which he said includes cheap water, an affordable labor force, access to transportation and the space already available in its empty mills. He said the cost of failing to latch onto an economy that's improving, if slowly, would be felt for decades. The city's unemployment is about 15 percent, down 2 percent since Lantigua took office four years ago.
“We're turning off kids coming home from college because there's no jobs and the sense of hopelessness here is tangible,” Rivera said. “We're a gateway city and we’re proud of it. But if we don’t get back onto the cycle where people can move up and out, and people can age out of their homes, it's Detroit. It's really Detroit. And that's a scary place to be. They're knocking down buildings so they can build farms.”
On Election Day, which is Tuesday, Rivera said he will have a team of 30 lawyers and other volunteers watching the polls to guard against the kind of irregularities that state observers reported during the Sept. 17 preliminary election, when Rivera finished second to Lantigua. He said the observers will phone in any irregularities to the Secretary of State, bypassing City Clerk William Maloney, who Rivera said is “not strong enough to say no to the mayor.”
Maloney did not return a phone call.
“We're going to be all over (Lantigua) all day to ensure that the things he thinks he has free will to do, he just can't do anymore,” Rivera said, referring to what he said is Lantigua's undue influence at city polling places. “He preys on people who are afraid of him. We're not afraid of him.”