Public property must be managed in a manner that benefits the public. Most importantly, it cannot be used for the benefit of the politically connected or as a reward for political support.
In Lawrence, Isabel Melendez has done good work providing services and assistance to the city’s poor. She has long been an asset to the city and its people.
But since 2009, in a deal arranged by former Mayor Michael Sullivan and continued under current Mayor William Lantigua, Melendez has operated out of the former General Donovan School on Cross Street. Melendez has had the use of the million-dollar city property essentially rent-free.
Reporter Keith Eddings found that Melendez runs a number of anti-poverty programs out of the building, which is assessed at $998,600. Melendez moved her operations into the building in 2009 under the auspices of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, where she was a program director. She had the use of the building under a $1-per-year lease negotiated with former Mayor Sullivan.
Melendez continued the arrangement under Mayor Lantigua. The city also provides the building’s water, sewer and maintenance services and pays for utilities. The services so far this year have cost the city more than $8,000, Eddings found.
Melendez left the GLCAC two years ago and negotiated her own “special use license” to remain at the Donovan School. The agreement requires her to pay utilities, reimburse the city for its service and obtain insurance. But the agreement was never signed, aides to Lantigua told Eddings.
This cozy arrangement must end.
Melendez is not merely a provider of services to the poor. She is an active player in the city’s politics. Melendez is currently the manager of Lantigua’s re-election campaign and has a political relationship with the mayor that extends back more than a decade. Lantigua in 2001 managed Melendez’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor. Lantigua two years ago hired her son, Jaime, as veterans services director, a $69,000-a-year post.
The providing of his campaign manager with a million-dollar city asset at no cost is a clear conflict of interest.
“Even if good things are happening in a public building, it’s a public resource and it needs to be fairly allocated, not allocated according to political connections,” Pam Wilmot, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, said in a story The Eagle-Tribune published Oct. 13. “This is a public good and it needs to be allocated in a way that’s fair and returns a good value to the city.”
Lawrence’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, Robert Nunes, is taking steps to rectify the situation. Nunes has asked the Lantigua administration to comply with state procurement laws and sign a lease or similar agreement with Melendez.
Meanwhile, the city is providing another unused school building free-of-charge to another social-service agency affiliated with GLCAC. Nunes wants that deal reviewed as well.
“It was brought to my attention and we’re going to correct the wrong,” Nunes said. “Now it’s up to the city attorney to make sure everything is legal and above board. It’s not my decision on who leases the building. That’s a decision made by the policy makers. My role is to make sure the procurement practices have been abided by.”
These agencies are serving a public need. But their status as nonprofit organizations does not entitle them to the use of public property free-of-charge.