“Mayor Pothole” is an American political icon, the politician who wins electoral support by making certain the streets are in good repair and swept clean.
Done properly and within the bounds of lawful municipal procedure, there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, taking care of the little details such as filling potholes and sweeping streets make our cities more livable.
But former Lawrence mayor William Lantigua in his bid to win re-election last year went far beyond the bounds of proper municipal procedure in one of the more blatant attempts to buy voter support with public money we’ve seen.
As reporter Keith Eddings found, dozens of streets in Lawrence were repaved with fresh coats of asphalt during Lantigua’s four years in office. But the work intensified dramatically last summer in the run-up to the September preliminary election in which the incumbent mayor faced five challengers.
In the 15 days from July 22 to Aug. 6, the bills from one paving company approached $400,000. But Highway Rehabilitation Corp. of New York had a contract with the city to perform just $84,979 worth of repaving.
The rest of the work was done under the direct order of Lantigua, circumventing normal bidding and contract requirements, city officials said.
The bill might have gone higher still had not an alert city employee noticed the $294,444 overrun and ordered a halt to the work.
“This email shall serve as notice that you are to cease any and all work in Lawrence immediately,” Purchasing Agent Rita Brousseau told David Capelle, Highway Rehab’s marketing officer, in an email. “No authorization was given to your company to perform any additional work, therefore, the city will not pay you for such.”
Indeed, Mayor Daniel Rivera, who defeated Lantigua in the November general election, says the city will not pay the bill for the paving work done in excess of what was authorized in the contract.
Longtime city officials say they had never seen a mayor take such direct control of ordinary work such as Lantigua did with the paving project.
Acting Public Works Director John Isensee told Eddings he was “pushed aside” as Lantigua personally directed the paving projects. Isensee said neither Lantigua nor City Engineer Andrew Wall made him aware that the work was exceeding the budget. State law requires a new round of bidding whenever a public project exceeds its initial contract price by 25 percent.
Wall was “taking his marching orders from the mayor,” Isensee said.
“In this instance, the mayor was driving the boat, so I went where the mayor wanted to go,” Wall said.
Mayors occasionally ask for a particular street to be paved but Lantigua was the only mayor to take over day-to-day direction of the work during the 17 years Wall administered the state aid the city receives for it, he said.
“No other mayor was on the streets, checking up every day, following me around, putting streets on and off the list,” Wall told Eddings. “No other mayor got directly involved. They left that up to (DPW directors) and myself.”
“It was an election year,” Wall said when pressed to explain Lantigua’s interest.
Indeed, Lantigua made the street paving a centerpiece of his campaign. As each street got its fresh coat of asphalt, a distinctive blue sign bearing Lantigua’s name would appear as well. Lantigua touted the paving on his Facebook page, at one point posting 62 pictures of one newly repaved street.
The message resonated with voters, many of whom cited the paving project to reporters as they entered the polls on the day of the preliminary election.
“I just like the job he’s doing,” Nara Bernard, a health care administrator, said in September as she entered a polling place to vote. “My street is beautiful, for one.”
Even when they follow proper bidding procedures, voters should be suspect of such blatant schemes. Consider: The politician is not spending his own money to pave the streets. He’s merely directing taxpayer-funded resources to his own benefit. In short, he’s buying your vote with your money.
If streets need paving, pave them. But that shouldn’t happen only when an elected leader needs a few extra votes.