Dan Rivera means business in Lawrence

New mayor looks to shake up city government, spur economy

With a business card that reads “City of Lawrence, Mayor & CEO,” Daniel Rivera is determined to bring in new companies and help existing ones add jobs in a municipality known for high poverty and unemployment. As part of that effort, Rivera believes city workers should dress professionally, which is why he requires all male employees to wear ties in their City Hall offices.

That edict didn’t sit well in Lawrence’s inspectional services department, one of the first stops for businesses seeking permits to set up shop in town. Although allowed to wear casual gear for dirty jobs, some of the inspectional services workers started wearing checkered black shirts with little bow ties on them in City Hall – “clown-type outfits,” according to the mayor – which he didn’t find amusing. But he indicated that he will have the last laugh.

“When I go to fire you, I’ll say ‘Look, is this the person you want representing the city?’” said Rivera with a chuckle. “It makes it easier for me.”

The tie requirement is just one of several new policies Rivera has put into play after four raucous years of former mayor William Lantigua. During a recent sit-down in Boston with staff at MassINC and CommonWealth, Rivera described his management style as more “honey than vinegar,” compared to Lantigua’s, which he called “more vinegar than honey.” Last November’s mayoral election gave Rivera a narrow lead over Lantigua; a recount put the former city councilor over the top by less than 100 votes.

Rivera’s first priority as mayor is beefing up the police department. That means adding more officers and hiring a new police chief to replace John Romero, who retired last year. (Boston’s current and former commissioners, William Evans and Ed Davis, are advising Rivera on the search.) Public safety is “a base for everything else you want to do,” he said. “You can’t bring jobs into our community if no one wants to have the 01841 zip code.”

Yet money is scarce for new police officers. After 12 straight years of property tax increases, Rivera will not raise taxes next year. He wants to see the city “live within its means.” But to boost the force from 117 officers up to the 155 he would like to see on the streets, he will need to land state or federal grants, as Lantigua did, or cut spending in other areas and redirect those funds to the police force. “It may mean laying some people off, but the city of Lawrence is not an employment agency,” Rivera said. “The community is really blind to how much it costs to put a police officer on the street.”

Drugs are a major issue in Lawrence. Rivera called the city more of a “drug mall than a drug haven,” with people coming from outside Lawrence to make purchases. Armed robberies recently spiked as a result. Through a citywide “Robbery Reduction Initiative” aimed at raising residents’ awareness about assaults with weapons and stepped-up enforcement on lapsed car inspections and registrations, the mayor said he wants “to make it an inhospitable situation for people coming from outside.”

Rivera also plans to reorganize city planning. To stimulate investment in the city, the mayor aims to bring on a planning director with genuine professional development experience to add to his current community development and business/economic development team. To improve city residents’ employment prospects, he’s aiming to help recent immigrants by providing the best adult basic education and English classes in the state. “We are always going to be an immigrant city,” he said.

That effort received a boost last week when Gov. Deval Patrick used a Lawrence middle school as the backdrop for the announcement of $3 million in education grants to Gateway City schools. Lawrence snagged $145,000 for English-language learner programs.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The mayor said that Jeff Riley, the state receiver who currently runs the Lawrence’s schools, is “doing a great job,” adding that the district “needed a culture shock.” Rivera would like to see Lawrence teachers get a new contract—and more money. The teachers’ union, which has been without a contract for three years, backed Rivera in the mayor’s race. But teacher salaries, like police pay, are hamstrung by the same poor state and municipal budget outlook. “I don’t have a problem with paying more for good teachers, but I’m not your ordinary Massachusetts taxpayer,” he laughed.

Rivera, the former city council vice president and budget chair, expects to work well with his former colleagues on the nine-member city council. The lone new councilor, Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez, supported him for mayor. Lawrence can also rely on some enthusiastic backing from Capitol Hill: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Niki Tsongas both endorsed Rivera for mayor.

The mayor is happy to bask in the good will for as long as he can. But how long does he expect it to last? “We haven’t put it to the test yet,” he chuckles. “I said to somebody, ‘I wonder when this is going to stop?’ The person replied, ‘When you ask for something.’”