The first step in extracting oneself from a hole is this: Stop digging.
That’s a lesson that hasn’t yet been learned in Lawrence. Businesses or developers that show an interest in investing in the struggling city are running into a frustrating roadblock — city boards that cannot legally meet to hear their proposals and move them forward.
That’s largely the fault of Lawrence’s do-nothing mayor, William Lantigua, who has failed to meet his responsibility to appoint new members to vacant seats on city boards and commissions or to re-appoint sitting members when their terms expire.
A mayor is supposed to promote and advance a city, not hobble it. Perhaps Lantigua might try actually performing the job he was elected to do.
The problem first became apparent last year with the Licensing Board, which regulates, among other things the city’s restaurants, nightclubs, car dealerships and any businesses that sell milk.
The three-member board was reduced to one member for about two months after the death of its chairman, rendering it incapable of taking any action. Once this crisis point was reached, Lantigua acted appointing two new members to join the board’s senior member Mayra Lantigua — the mayor’s ex-wife — whose term expired 6 years ago.
State law allows municipal board members whose terms expire to continue serving until their replacements are appointed. But in Lawrence, reporter Keith Eddings found, those expired terms lead to vacancies on boards and can result in the boards’ being unable to reach a quorum and conduct their business.
That happened recently on the five-member Conservation Commission, which has two vacant seats. Winn Development, one of the region’s largest developers, is working on a project to build 65 apartments at the Malden Mills site. Winn needs the Conservation Commission’s approval of its project to apply for state tax credits to help finance the construction of the apartments.
The meeting of the Conservation Commission was scheduled for July 16. But that night one member of the commission called in sick, leaving the board unable to meet its quorum and conduct business.
An emergency meeting has been called for this week to hear Winn’s proposal. The Wednesday meeting is one day before Winn’s deadline to apply for the tax credit.
Conservation Commission Chairman Tennis Lilly has served the city on the board for 12 years. His most recent appointment expired in 2011.
“There hasn’t been a lot of effort on behalf of the city to fill the Conservation Commission or any of the other boards,” Lilly told Eddings. “Municipal boards have a lot of power. They exercise an enormous amount of authority over day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts aspects of daily life. If you’re a developer and you have a project, maybe it’s getting into fall, you don’t what to get your permit issued in the middle of winter. You need to get your permit issued in a timely fashion.”
Eddings found that today, 16 of 20 seats on four key city agencies — the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission and Lawrence Redevelopment Authority — are either vacant or are holding onto their quorums only because members whose terms have expired are continuing to serve while waiting for the mayor to act. On the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board, every seat is vacant or held by a member whose appointment has run out.
Lawrence needs all the investment and business growth it can muster. But when developers or businesses looking to grow and expand encounter problems like these, they get the message that city leaders just do not care. They’re more than happy to take their business elsewhere.