We are saddened at the death of Heather Sapienza of Lawrence, who final days of life were made more difficult and troubled by a mayor who cares more about cutting deals for his cronies than extending a helping hand to ordinary people.
Sapienza died last week after a 19-month fight with cancer. We extend our deep sympathy to her family and friends.
Most people understand that a fight against cancer or any major illness is emotionally as well as financially draining. A life’s savings are eaten away quickly by medical bills, even for those who have good insurance coverage. The financial stress adds another layer of worry to concerns over treatment and an uncertain future.
Tom Sapienza wanted to be with his wife to help her with these burdens. So he took all the vacation and sick time he could from his job with the Lawrence Department of Public Works, where he drove plows and maintained Veterans Memorial Stadium for $18 per hour. That paid time off amounted to two months and ran out in August. So Tom Sapienza then went on unpaid leave.
That leave was extended several times but DPW Commissioner John Isensee says he advised Mayor William Lantigua that he couldn’t go on covering Sapienza’s job with temporary workers indefinitely.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Lantigua fired Sapienza from the job he had held for eight years.
In fairness, there are private sector businesses that would not tolerate a worker’s absence for more than the 12 weeks mandated under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But this is Lawrence, where until recently there were three police officers — one of them the deputy chief — being paid to stay home on administrative leave. Officer Daron Fraser, convicted of a domestic violence charge, was scheduled to return to work last week after 29 months out of work during which he was paid more than $150,000.
Is there any comparison here? Tom Sapienza, unpaid leave for little more than three months: fired. Daron Fraser, paid leave for more than two years: invited to return to work.
Worse, on the day Sapienza was fired, Lantigua pal and former state Rep. Jose Santiago was hired to a temporary position at the DPW. Santiago, who has no public works experience, was given a laborers job similar to the one Sapienza had held.
Former city Planning Director Mike Sweeney — who was also once fired by Lantigua — established a fund for the family and organized a benefit to help the couple pay bills and keep their house. He told reporter Keith Eddings that with the firing, Lantigua had created “circumstances that were more difficult than they needed to be” for the Sapienzas.
“Thirty-five days before (Heather’s) death, in the middle of the holidays, you have this heartless comic-book character firing her husband while he’s got two indicted police officers sitting at home doing nothing, who are making over $200,000 (combined), plus benefits,” Sweeney said, referring to Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla and P.J. Lopez, whom Lantigua put on paid leave after they were charged with crimes. “And he’s getting rid of an $18-an-hour DPW worker who was unpaid leave so that he could be home with his dying wife.”
It seems Lantigua has one set of standards for his friends and a different one for everybody else. Friends and supporters get the white glove treatment. Other people, even a husband who wants unpaid time off to be with his dying wife, get pink slips.
Sweeney’s right. It is heartless. But Lantigua a comic-book character? No, there he misses the mark.
Comic-book villains are extravagantly evil with their master plans to foil the hero and rule the world.
Lantigua’s villainy is more mundane, banal one might say. No flamboyant plots or intricate plans here. Setting up cronies and sticking it to the little guy — why, that’s just an ordinary day’s work for the mayor.
And if a dying woman’s final days are a bit more troubled, well for Lantigua, that’s just a cost of doing business.