By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua returned to City Hall yesterday after spending two weeks in his native Dominican Republic — a vacation which drew the ire of many in and outside the city questioning the timing of his respite.
But the mayor said there was no way he could predict last week's spate of fires, which showed the impact of last month's layoffs of 23 firefighters and Lawrence's new dependence on outside departments to fight its fires.
"Just because I am a mayor doesn't mean I am a robot," Lantigua said. He added that "there comes a point where you have to take some time to meditate and relax."
Elected last November as the city and state's first Latino mayor, Lantigua said he's spent the past nine months working around the clock. Much of his time has been dominated by budget problems, particularly this spring as his $72 million municipal budget relied on the layoffs of 47 police officers and firefighters and 37 other city workers.
Lantigua insists he was not trying to hide from anybody during this public safety controversy but was doing what many people are doing this summer: taking a vacation. And even though he was 1,600 miles away, Lantigua said he was in constant contact with City Hall.
"Because of the situation, I was on the phone all the time. I decided to come back and address the issues personally," Lantigua said. "I went to quite a few cities but I was always on the phone making sure we were doing what needed to be done here."
Lantigua said he was originally scheduled to stay in the Dominican Republic until next Tuesday but decided to come back five days early. Part of his early return means the mayor will miss a swearing-in ceremony Monday of city officials in his hometown of Tenares. Lantigua said he hasn't ruled out a quick return to the island country to attend the ceremony.
While in the Dominican Republic, Lantigua traveled to different cities, including Santo Domingo and La Vega. Pictures on the Internet of Lantigua at a campaign breakfast with presidential candidate Eligio Jaquez drew further criticism, with some questioning how he could be stumping for politicians on the Caribbean island instead of trying to save public safety jobs in Lawrence.
Lantigua insists it was only a breakfast he attended and that he wasn't down there to campaign. He said he met with several businessmen with interests in Lawrence and also was a celebrity guest on Dominican radio. He said people in Lawrence were listening to the show via the Internet and calling in to ask questions. Afterward, Lantigua said a flurry of invitations to parties and events throughout the country poured in.
"It was a big deal I was a (state) representative and a bigger deal I am mayor," said Lantigua, noting that when he visits he declines offers of everything from car service to armed bodyguards.
Taking a vacation, particularly out of the country, is tough for local mayors.
Methuen Mayor William Manzi, in office now for four and a half years, said he never strays too far from his city. On vacation now, Manzi said he isn't going farther than Salisbury Beach. He's returned to his City Hall office nearly every day, is answering his cell phone and closely monitors e-mail, he said.
"They are all working vacations," said Manzi, who said he's never left the country while in office.
But Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini has. Several years ago, he and his wife traveled to Italy for 10 days to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. This week and next week, the Haverhill mayor is vacationing in Seabrook and he also takes a five-day annual vacation to Vero Beach, Fla. Today's technology makes it possible to check in while you're at Seabrook Beach or overseas, he said.
"With computers and cell phones, it doesn't matter where you are," Fiorentini said.