GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 13, 2010

Mayor recruits volunteers to spy on firefighters

From Staff Reports

LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua has enlisted a volunteer corps of film crews to chase firefighters and record their actions at the scenes of accidents, fires and other calls they respond to.

Lantigua says he has received several complaints from citizens concerned about "slow response" times by firefighters and questioning whether the jakes' actions are driven by last month's layoff of 23 from the department. The mayor said some of those callers have volunteered to follow firefighters, video them on the job, and turn over the tapes to City Hall.

"I got no money," Lantigua said. "I can't hire a private investigator."

Lantigua's words and actions drew the ire of firefighters and city officials alike.

"What I want to make clear is the Fire Department personnel have historically given 100 percent and Lawrence Fire Department personnel will continue to give 100 percent," said acting fire Chief Brian Murphy.

"It's unbelievable that a mayor of a major city in the Commonwealth would do that to his employees," said Graeme Millar, secretary of the Lawrence firefighters union.

"The firefighters here in the city, we give 150 percent every single day, no questions asked,'' Millar said. "For him to throw out a report like that — our firefighters ... not doing their job? Come on."

City Councilor Dan Rivera said he felt Lantigua had handled himself well in budget negotiations with firefighters, but the mayor's call for citizen film crews was irresponsible, Rivera said. He said it will escalate tension between the firefighters and the mayor's office. "The mayor should not have said what he said," Rivera said. "Everybody in this situation has to come to the table and this doesn't help."

City Councilor Marc Laplante, who convened a meeting Wednesday of area fire chiefs to discuss Lawrence's calls for mutual aid, said the mayor's comments could cause Lawrence citizens to distrust the Fire Department — individuals vital to public safety.

"The last thing we need to be doing is undermining the very job that they need to do," Laplante said. Lantigua refused to answer any further questions, including whether he plans to recruit more amateur photographers or what he plans do with the tapes. Murphy has called for a meeting with state Secretary of Public Safety Beth Heffernan and state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan to discuss the issue.

No volunteer film crews were obvious as firefighters were called to two separate incidents within a matter of minutes last night. The first call, an accident involving two vehicles at Haverhill and Amesbury streets, had one ladder stay only for a few minutes before leaving the scene. As the engine left, crews received a second call regarding a fire at Valley Lodging North, a boarding house complex on Common Street.

Since the layoffs and the closing of three firehouses last month, firefighters battled two major fires at an abandoned paper mill complex within six hours Sunday and needed the help of firefighters from 14 neighboring communities to handle the blazes. The department also fought a three-alarm blaze Aug. 6 that heavily damaged two homes on State Street and left 12 people homeless. Lawrence needed the help of firefighters from 11 communities with that blaze. Tracking firefighters is not without precedent. In December 2008, Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini spent $13,000 to hire a private investigator to follow firefighters out on sick leave. The investigation led to the suspensions of four firefighters caught on tape carrying furniture, shoveling snow, and attending hockey games. Lantigua said the videotaping of Lawrence firefighters has to be done on a voluntary basis.

"For some reason this mayor has turned this into a personal attack on firefighters," Millar said. Staff writers Jill Harmacinski and Dustin Luca contributed to this report.