Are two jobs in Lawrence better than one?

By Gabrielle Gurley

Rep. William Lantigua thinks so. Elected mayor of Lawrence last fall, the Democrat is hanging on to his House seat for dear life. And no one — not Gov. Deval Patrick nor any of his Beacon Hill colleagues — has yet been able to convince Latingua otherwise, even with his city’s finances collapsing all around him.

Lantigua’s divided loyalties complicate an already delicate situation for the perennially distressed Merrimack Valley city. Lawrence is in free fall, with a $20.5 million budget deficit this fiscal year. As lawmakers at Wednesday’s special Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing debated the pros and cons of a short-term overseer versus a longer-term control board, they made it clear that a full-time mayor needed to be part of the solution.

Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed legislation that would permit the city to sell $35 million in bonds to help staunch the red ink and allow Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez to appoint a financial overseer. If municipal officials can’t turn things around by January 2011, state authorities would trigger the nuclear option, a financial control board.

If Lawrence is asking for extraordinary assistance, we should expect and demand extraordinary effort, Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, the co-chair of Ways and Means, said of Latingua’s decision to keep both jobs. “It may be legal; it may be ethical; but it doesn’t seem responsible.”

But Lantigua wasn’t there to hear the frustration (The mayor may have been advised not to appear at the hearing.) and that decision didn’t endear him to his colleagues.  “The CEO of the city doesn’t show up,” said Rep. Robert Hargraves, a Groton Republican. “There’s no damn excuse for that.”

The state is poised to intervene one way or another. But whether Lawrence gets a year to shore up its finances with state help or is put under the supervision of a financial control board may hinge whether Lantigua can resolve his identity crisis.

Holding a state lawmaking and a municipal position at the same time can be done. Currently, one person holding two such positions is Rep. Tim Toomey, a Cambridge Democrat, who serves in the House (since 1993) and on the Cambridge City Council (since 1989). But the city council position isn’t a full-time job, and the real executive power in Cambridge is vested in the city manager. Rep. Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat, has filed a bill that would prevent an individual from serving both as a state lawmaker and as the head of a city or town.