Laws? Laws? We don’t need no stinkin’ laws!

Corruption 101: Willie Lantigua, Lenny Degnan and Patrick Blanhette,

By: Robert O’Koniewski, Esq.- June, 2010

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts comprises 351 cities and towns. From the Berkshires to the Cape, 350 communities and their leaders play by the rules and actually follow the laws as written. Then there is Lawrence, where apparently no rules or laws apply, just like the Texas panhandle circa 1850.

Item: Under the state’s campaign finance law, a candidate for office must file periodically a campaign finance report with the state Office of Campaign Finance for state races and with the municipal clerk’s office for local races. A couple of weeks back, eight days prior to the Democratic primary for the special election to fill the state representative seat held previously by the current mayor, the candidates were required to file a campaign finance report with OCPF. Lo and behold, neither Chally Ramos nor Marcos Devers, who won the primary, filed the required report on the May 10th due date.

Lenny Degnan, Chief of Staff
Lenny Degnan, Chief of Staff

As we went to press, they still had not filed their reports. Who did file his report on time? Rafael Gadea, a member of our United State armed forces, who is the independent candidate in the race and will face Devers in the June 15th final election. I will bet you a tank of gas that Mr. Gadea will for sure have his next report filed on time on June 7th. I am not as confident in the case of Mr. Devers.

Item: Last November we had a well publicized mayoral election that saw Lawrence elect its first mayor of Latino descent. In September of that year ten candidates stepped to the plate and put forth their name in the primary. Yet the candidates’ ability to meet the campaign finance filing requirements were spotty at best, and given the feckless attitude of the overwhelmingly incompetent city clerk who seemingly fails to enforce any rule under his purview, why should candidates bother.

If you recall it wasn’t until just before the election that the eventual mayor-elect finally got his papers to the clerk’s office. Never mind that his reports were late and he failed to comply with some substantial state laws, it did not raise a blip on the outrage meter. Well, one person who did care was the OCPF director himself, Michael Sullivan (no relation, thank God, to the former mayor), who earlier this year sent a letter to each of the ten candidates informing them that OCPF will be conducting a full audit of each of their campaign committee accounts. Candidates were to have all their papers, canceled checks, invoices, etc. to OCPF by the close of business on Friday, May 14. Not so amazingly, only two candidates complied with the audit demand letter – David Abdoo, the other November finalist, and Dan Cotnoir (interestingly enough, also both military men like Mr. Gadea).

Eight candidates, including the sitting mayor, the aforementioned Mr. Devers, and the mayor’s current “acting” economic director, who is also the former city councilor from District A, simply just ignored an audit letter from the campaign finance enforcer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Since then, two more have filed – Julia Silverio and Pedro Payano. The rest just simply thumb their noses and continue on their merry way.

Item: Part of the state ethics law governing the conduct of public officials (Chapter 268A, section 20) states that a former city councilor cannot then be employed by the municipality he served for six months after leaving office. But apparently that does not apply in Lawrence. After losing his mayoral bid last year, and leaving office on January 3rd, the former District A city councilor, one Patrick Blanchette, simply slid onto the city payroll as the mayor’s “acting” planning director and “acting” economic development director, before the euphoria of the mayor’s January 4th inauguration even had time to die down.

Item: That same District A city councilor for eight years did nothing but complain time after time that Mayor Sullivan’s “acting” economic development director, Tom Schiavone, was illegally in his position because, under the city charter (which is, in fact, a law passed by the Massachusetts Legislature back in 1983 with amendments several times since then), one can only serve in the job in an acting capacity for 90 days before the mayor must send his name down for permanent appointment.

Funny how, now that the former District A city councilor is on the mayor’s good side, having endorsed him last fall in the race against Abdoo, he presently holds the job of “acting” economic development director and “acting” planning director for the City of Lawrence. Yet five months into this gig, the mayor has yet to send the “acting” director’s name down to the council to make him permanent. Five months…90 days….what’s the difference?

Item: One of the great under-the-radar screen boards of all time is the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District, which dictates how what you flush gets treated and charged backed to the flushers. It is one of the most amazing open secrets that Lawrence each year basically subsidizes the lower flush charges for the members of the district because, unlike those communities that meter their sewage, Lawrence does not. Lawrence gets an estimated assessment, and, hence, pays more than it should. Lawrence has three seats on the board, one of which is now held by Frank McCann, Lawrence’s DPW director, who has spoken eloquently of the inequity of the current assessment system. Andover and North Andover have one each. Interestingly enough, the North Andover seat is presently occupied by a North Andover resident who happens to be the Lawrence mayor’s chief of staff, one Leonard “Lenny” Degnan.

Now riddle me this – when it comes time to vote on a matter, does Mr. Degnan vote the interest of his community of North Andover, for whom he is expected to protect on the Board – that’s why they appointed him presumably, or does he vote how his boss, the Lawrence mayor, tells him to vote. Not too much of a conflict of interest there. It must be nice to be able to serve two masters. But wait, there’s more. Since Mr. McCann, as the DPW head, is an employee of the City of Lawrence and must answer directly to the mayor and his chief of staff, how independent can Mr. McCann be when he votes knowing that his job may be on the line should he buck his bosses’ wishes?

While all these dramas play out, the mayor finally went before the city council on June 1st to present his (or I should say, the fiscal overseer’s) budget plan for FY 2011, which begins July 1. The mayor spent a considerable amount of time blaming the previous administration for the fiscal disaster he took over on January 4th, but interesting enough, I did not here him mention that every one of those past three budgets were signed off by the same person who is now watching the books for Lawrence as our overseer.

The mayor did a commendable job going through the PowerPoint presentation the state put together for him and detailed just where he expects certain revenues to come from. However, what was completely lacking was any vision, any reforms, any consolidations that would demonstrate real savings and a real recognition of fixing what ails this city. What he has managed to do is pick a fight with the two most important departments in the city – police and fire.

This isn’t backwoods western Massachusetts where police and fire personnel sit around playing checkers all day. The police are our last line of defense before the city becomes engulfed in total social breakdown, and the fire are there to at least put up a good fight against wayward property owners taking there last bit of profit out of their underwater triple deckers. Laying off 35 police and a similar number of fire at a time of great societal disruption is not exactly ripping a page from the Mensa handbook.

If the mayor really wanted to regroup the community, he would have reduced city hall to three days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday – cut them all back to part timers, and expand the Internet capabilities for citizens to access their City Hall and municipal services. He should then expand the police personnel so that there are more patrols on the street and replenish the staffing at the five remaining fire houses so that the fire personnel can adequately protect our city like they have historically demonstrated since the city’s founding. But that would be too much outside the box. And when you have a governor depending on a mayor to game the system to ensure as many votes as possible for him in November, thinking outside the box and for what is best for our city is the last thing this mayor and his band of merrymen at 200 Common want to do.

Perhaps that is the plan. Create as much chaos as possible and exacerbate the systemic dysfunction that is Lawrence. The Texas panhandle circa 1860 does not seem like such a bad thing at this point afterall. Short rope, tall tree, and a shotgun by my side.

Summer Travel Tip: If you are planning on traveling outside the United States, remember that you cannot take more than $10,000 in cash with you. Anything above that amount, you are going to have to declare it and demonstrate where it came from. Otherwise you will have it all confiscated, permanently. The wise, prepared traveler is a happy traveler.

Happy trails to you.