By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The cost of the around-the-clock police guard stationed outside the City Hall vault holding the 15,210 ballots cast in last week’s mayoral election will surpass $25,000 by this weekend, the earliest a recount of the ballots could be conducted.
Police are guarding the vault in three eight-hour shifts, each with two officers so that both doors to the vault are covered. Each of the six officers manning the detail every day are doing it on overtime because the Police Department does not have the manpower to assign officers to the post during their regular shifts.
At time-and-a-half, each of the cops is earning an average of about $350 a shift, according to police Chief James Fitzpatrick, who provided the number to City Councilor Mark Laplante but did not return a phone call from The Eagle-Tribune seeking to confirm it.
Instead, Fitzpatrick tweeted about it later in the day.
“Officers continue to guard ballots a significant expenditure but insures sanctity of ballots,” Fitzpatrick tweeted at 5 p.m.
The police guard is needed because the outcome of the election remains uncertain. Daniel Rivera has a 58-vote edge over Mayor William Lantigua — equal to less than half a percentage point — headed into the recount, which could begin this weekend if Lantigua files petitions bearing 60 signatures asking for it, as required.
It’s unclear whether the police guard would remain outside the vault if Rivera or Lantigua appeals the recount in state Superior Court, or whether the guard would be called off if the city’s Board of Registrars certifies the result of the election after the recount.
The Election Division office where one officer is stationed is dusty and cluttered, and the hallway outside where the second officer is stationed is cheerless. The job appears tedious, but the officers are finding ways around the tedium. Yesterday, officer Ivan Melendez watched “Lincoln,” the 2012 Steven Spielberg film about the 16th president, on a personal computer while sitting at a desk beside the vault.
Lantigua could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Rivera said the cost of the police guard is money well spent, even for the state’s poorest city.
“We need to have 100 percent confidence that our electoral process works, that the voters’ will is not being challenged,” Rivera said. “Some other time, we’ll be in a place where it doesn’t matter, where the people will trust the electoral process, but they just don’t right now.”
Police also stood over the ballots the last time a race for mayor in Lawrence went to a recount 20 years ago, when Mary Claire Kennedy added three votes to her 11-vote margin in the recount and defeated Lawrence LeFebre. Acting Mayor Leonard Degnan attempted to dodge the cost of the police guard by asking state police to take custody of the ballots. The state police declined.
This year, the Lawrence Police Department’s budget includes $627,270 for overtime, up $28,000 from last year.
Neither of the city’s two police unions endorsed a candidate for mayor, although eight cops contributed to Lantigua’s campaign between Aug. 31 and Oct. 18, the period covered in the most recent financial disclosure forms filed by Lantigua and Rivera.
Also contributing to Lantigua was Lydia Bonilla, the wife of Deputy police Chief Melix Bonilla, who Lantigua put on paid leave from his $140,000-a-year job after he was indicted for extortion and other crimes 15 months ago.
Lydia Bonilla gave Lantigua $500, the maximum allowed.
Rivera did not accept contributions from city employees.