EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 17, 2014

Editorial: City lost more than money in paying Bonilla

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — For former Lawrence Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, the gravy train has finally stopped rolling.

Bonilla, under indictment on bribery and extortion charges, hasn’t done any work for the city since Sept. 11, 2012, when he was placed on administrative leave. But thanks to former Mayor William Lantigua, that didn’t stop his paychecks from coming in. Despite the efforts of former police Chief John Romero to stop it, Bonilla continued to collect his pay, which city records show came at a rate of $138,000 a year.

That’s a year and four months of pay — for no work.

But it all came to an end when a Civil Service hearing officer upheld new Mayor Daniel Rivera’s effort to stop paying Bonilla for doing nothing.

When he took office Jan. 2, Rivera moved immediately to stop Bonilla’s pay, demote him from deputy chief to sergeant, and formally suspend him. Last Friday, a Civil Service hearing was held on the pay issue. Wednesday, the decision of hearing officer James Bowers, a former city attorney and county prosecutor, was made public.

Bowers cited state law that allows for the suspension of any municipal employee under indictment. The law states that: “Any person so suspended shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension ...”

Bonilla is charged with bribery, extortion and conspiracy, stemming from the illegal swap of 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolet Impalas from a Lantigua friend and campaign supporter. His criminal trial is scheduled for April 7.

The unequal value of the vehicles traded cost the city at least $36,000. Paying Bonilla for no work for more than a year has multiplied that loss many times.

It is outrageous that Bonilla continued to collect pay from the public coffers for no work for so long. The payments to Bonilla are a particularly egregious example of the political patronage that was rife in the Lantigua administration.

Bonilla managed Lantigua’s successful 2009 campaign for mayor. Almost immediately after taking office, Lantigua appointed Bonilla, then a police sergeant, to the deputy chief post over Romero’s objections. After Bonilla’s indictment, Romero tried to remove him from the payroll but was overruled by Lantigua, who as the appointing authority had final say in such matters.

The law under which the Civil Service hearing officer upheld Rivera’s decision to end Bonilla’s pay is not new. It was in place over the entire duration of the Lantigua administration. But under Lantigua, the law did not matter as much as supporting political allies did.

That official arrogance cost the city of Lawrence much more than the cash that went into Bonilla’s pocket. It cost the city’s leadership the respect of the public it is sworn to serve.

Mayor Rivera is committed to rebuilding that respect and trust. Rivera’s fight to demote Bonilla and end his pay is part of a larger effort to rebuild the Police Department.

Asked for reaction to the decision, Rivera told reporter Jill Harmacinski he is “thankful this distraction is behind us and we can get back to the business of running a professional police department.”

Rivera is working to restore the public’s faith in the city’s leadership — and he is doing so with actions, not just words. He is earning the city’s support.