Rivera threatens to remove lawyer from city hall

Attorney Brian Corrigan 

LAWRENCE — The power-struggle between Mayor Daniel Rivera and a newly assertive City Council escalated Wednesday when Rivera's personnel director sent an early-morning text to a lawyer for the city – whom Rivera fired Friday and the council rehired Tuesday – warning that police will block him from City Hall if he shows up for work.

Brian Corrigan, a second assistant city attorney since 2016, said he will ignore the warning and show up at 8:30 a.m. Friday, after a day off Thursday that he said he scheduled earlier. He added that he would comply with an order from police to leave, citing what he said is his respect for the police force.

Corrigan said he was in his kitchen just after 7 Wednesday morning, reading a newspaper account of the council's 6-2 vote to reinstate him Tuesday night, when the text from Personnel Director Frank Bonet flashed on his cell phone.

“I was told if I attempt to get into City Hall for work, the police department is on notice I'm to be escorted from the building, or worse, presumably,” he said.

Several city councilors suggested they are ready for a fight over Rivera's decision to disregard their vote to rehire Corrigan and his warning that he will use police to block Corrigan if he attempts to return to his job, which pays $88,000 annually.

“I believe the charter and our ordinances are clear on the appointment or renewal process for the second assistant city attorney,” Councilor Pavel Payano said. “The City Council has renewed attorney Corrigan's contract and it would be my expectation that he'd be working right now for the city.”

“At the moment, I'm giving everyone the benefit of the doubt that things weren't done with malicious intent,” Payano added. “If they were, I think attorney Corrigan has good standing to sue the city.”

Councilor Maria De La Cruz, who made the motion to rehire Corrigan at Wednesday's meeting, said the texted warning Corrigan received Wednesday left her “very uncomfortable.”

“I'd like to have a conversation with the mayor face-to-face so he can explain to me what I'm not understanding,” she said.

Council President Kendrys Vasque did not return a phone call.

Rivera would not comment on the text message to Corrigan, calling it a personnel matter. His letter to Corrigan dismissing him Friday did not offer a reason.

Corrigan said he believes Rivera dismissed him to clear the way for his chief of staff, Eileen Bernal, to become city attorney, who is the city's top lawyer and oversees the Law Department's two assistant city attorneys, including Corrigan. The job has been open since Charles Boddy resigned in May to take a similar position in Milford, but the City Council has been unable to agree on a replacement. The council's Personnel Committee ranked Corrigan first – ahead of Bernal and First City Attorney Raquel Ruano — after interviews in August, but Rivera said he would refuse to sign his contract if the council appoints him.

Rivera's warning to Corrigan to stay out of City Hall came just a few hours after the council's vote to defy Rivera and renew his contract through June 30. The hour-long discussion before the vote focused mostly on who has the power to hire and fire the city's lawyers, but occasionally broadened into one about how power is shared at City Hall and whether the council has been timid in asserting its authority against a mayor who has not been timid about asserting his own.

“What happened to the power of the council?” asked Councilor Brian De Pena, who serves at-large and already has said he will run for mayor in three years, when Rivera will be unable to run for a third term. “Does only the mayor have power in this city?... The City Council needs respect.”

In a second vote Wednesday, the council agreed to hire an outside counsel to sort through the growing number of issues surrounding Corrigan's contract, as well as the council's inability to agree on a candidate to replace Boddy as city attorney.

The issues include:

* whether Rivera exceeded his authority when he told Corrigan that his contract would not be renewed, and also violated Corrigan's contract by not providing him with a 45-day notice that he would be dismissed, as stipulated in his contract;

* whether Rivera can effectively thwart the council's power to hire the city's lawyers by refusing to sign their employment contracts;

* whether Rivera has the authority to unilaterally appoint a new city attorney to replace Boddy, as Rivera has threatened to do because the councilors have been unable to agree on Boddy's replacement.

* whether the council can reconsider Rivera's first choice for City Attorney – Bernal, his chief of staff – after failing to approve her in an earlier vote. The council's rules require it to wait a year before reconsidering an “ordinance or resolution” it rejected. There is disagreement about whether the rule applies to personnel appointments.

Councilors Vasque, De La Cruz, Payano, De Pena, Estela Reyes and Jeovanny Rodriguez on Wednesday voted to renew Corrigan's contract through June 30. Councilors David Abdoo and Marc Laplante voted no, after suggesting that the council should first get an opinion from outside council on the issues surrounding the range of issues involved.

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