Lawrence mayor, in Spanish, says he will run for re-election next year

LAWRENCE — William Lantigua, the controversial mayor of Lawrence who has been buffeted by allegations of political corruption in his administration, announced Friday that he will run for reelection next year.

About 100 people packed a bar and grill Friday night for an event originally billed as a way for Lantigua to find out whether the community supported his candidacy. A woman walked around the dining area with a pad, asking people for names, addresses, and their vote — yes or no — on another Lantigua run, the mayor said.

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But the gathering turned into an announcement party when the mayor stepped behind a podium adorned with a blue and white “Democrat Lantigua for Mayor” sign.

“I wasn’t sure until I saw you here and counted the numbers,” Lantigua said, addressing the crowd in Spanish. “We will continue. It will be a difficult campaign, an expensive campaign, a lot of work, but as someone just said, here is also the heart of the campaign.”

Lantigua has been beset by allegations of political corruption in his administration since he was elected mayor in 2009. Two officials under him, including his former chief of staff, were indicted in September on charges including conspiracy and extortion.

The cries of corruption surrounding Lawrence’s first Latino mayor include allegations that he has used city operations for personal gain — allegations that Lantigua has vigorously rejected. The mayor has not been charged with any crimes.

Leonard Degnan, his former chief of staff, is charged with urging an executive from a disposal company that works with the City of Lawrence to donate a garbage truck to a city in the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native country.

Melix Bonilla, the deputy police chief and Lantigua’s 2009 campaign manager, was charged with falsely transferring the ownership of 13 motor vehicles from the Police Department to an auto dealer with close ties to Lantigua.

Both Degnan and Bonilla have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

After Lantigua’s announcement, several people said they were happy the mayor will run again and plan to vote for him in 2013.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m very happy with the work that he’s done in the last four years,” said Linette Perez, a resident of Lawrence for 17 years.

“I mean, he found this city with a $30 million deficit and he worked with what he had,” she added.

Belquies Guerrero, speaking in Spanish, said she has lived in the city for 29 years, and she welcomed Lantigua’s decision to seek reelection.

“People always talk, but he is a man with morals and he is the first one to make any changes from what I’ve seen,” said Guerrero. “He made an excellent decision.”

Earlier Friday, one man waved a sign drawn by his 12-year-old daughter that read, “The best does not change.”

“I tell her about him because he’s the best mayor we’ve ever had,’’ said Manuel Lara, 42, in an interview conducted in Spanish. “I would vote for him 4 million times if necessary,” said Lara, who has lived in Lawrence for nine years.

John Isensee, director of the Lawrence Department of Public Works, said Lantigua’s accomplishments go unheralded. He said Lantigua has done a good job balancing budgets and addressing an inherited municipal deficit.

“A lot of good things have happened during his tenure, and the message doesn’t always get out there,” Isensee said.

Lantigua, too, said he is proudest of his management of city finances. He said the controversy swirling around his first term has been difficult.

“I am tired, I can tell you that,” Lantigua said. “It’s not an easy job. I work hard, and yet you get beat up every single day by the same people.”

The mayor said he supports the two officials indicted in September, calling them good friends and adding that he believes they did nothing wrong. He said he believes the allegations of wrongdoing are groundless, and the turmoil has strengthened him.

“If anything, it gives me motivation to keep working hard and to prove that I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said.