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Lowell Cemetery Tours Today & Tomorrow

Lowell Cemetery tours today at 1 pm and tomorrow (Saturday, Sept 23) at 10 am. Both start at Knapp Ave entrance, alongside Shedd Park. Tours are free and last about 90 minutes.

“What Happened?” Clinton gets it by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

“What Happened?” It’s a question many have been asking at least daily for the last ten months. So it’s an apt title for Hillary Clinton’s new book, a reasonably clear-eyed analysis of the 2016 presidential election debacle.  While she glosses over a few issues, she shows a surprising self-awareness and candor.  In the end, “What Happened” is a reminder of what might have been and a warning call about the peril our democratic process faces in future elections.

Right from the prologue, Clinton expresses remorse for letting down those who believed in her, many holding significant reservations. “I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that the rest of my life,” she says.  The book is at once humanizing and analytical.  She shares how she coped with the shock and disappointment of the November 8 outcome, what it felt like showing up (as former First Lady) for the Trump inauguration, and how she gradually learned to put one foot in front of the other and get on with living. It’s one thing for ordinary people to pick themselves up, after the death of a loved one, for example, or a divorce, getting fired, overcoming self-pity or even addiction. It’s quite another to fail shockingly on the global stage. She learned to do it, she says,  with “grit and gratitude.”

Clinton acknowledges all the things she should have seen coming but did not.  She describes her transacting government business on a private server as a “bone-headed mistake” and laments the attention paid to her “dumb decision.” But she takes a while to acknowledge that the issue became a proxy for other feelings of unease about her character, including her guarded responses to press questions, outrageous speaking fees before corporate audiences and appearance of entitlement. Still, FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 last-minute letter to Congress implying the agency was still looking at Clinton’s emails (when early voting was already underway), then backtracking on it, clearly had an impact on the vote. (Pollster Nate Silver and others have confirmed Clinton was on track to win until that letter hit.)

The book does include several explorations of policy (job creation, guns, violence, incarceration, fossil fuel and climate change).  This is a Hillary Clinton book, after all, and she is a wonk (not a bad thing). But she underestimates the voter impact  of issues like NAFTA, TPP and globalization and the failure to punish the financiers who spurred the Great Recession. I don’t think she once mentioned Goldman Sachs in the book. She cites a Harvard Shorenstein Center study that public policy constituted just ten percent of all campaign news coverage in the general election. That is shameful.

Initially, Clinton reflects she is at a loss to understand why she is such a lightning rod, though she identifies the litany of investigations that have dogged her.  Because of them, she developed a bunker mentality that fed the impression she had something to hide.  She glosses over any missteps by Bill Clinton, from his disparaging Obamacare to what she lightly concedes were the “bad optics” of Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. Hillary also ignores DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s tilting the primary process against Bernie Sanders. While Clinton says that neither she, nor Bill nor Chelsea ever got paid by the Clinton Foundation, she makes little to no mention of the pay-to-play stench of huge speaking fees she and Bill raked in from Foundation donors courting the next President. Even Chelsea had warned against this in emails.

Hillary manages to talk about sexism and misogyny without whining.  Let’s face it. It’s out there.  As she puts it, “if we’re too tough, we’re unlikable. If we’re too soft, we’re not cut out for the big leagues.” Men may scoff at this. Women know it’s the truth. Still, while Clinton overwhelmingly won the votes of black and Latino women, and had a healthy majority of all women, she failed to win a majority of white women. “Gender,” she says, “hasn’t proven to be the motivating force for women voters” some might have hoped.  This, despite the Access Hollywood Trump tape, coverage of which declined  because Clinton’s opponents immediately dropped a Wiki release of John Podesta’s emails. The press predictably took that up as the next shiny thing.

There has long been a difference between Hillary the candidate – stiff, guarded, wonkish – and Hillary the real person – warm, funny, down-to-earth.  This book does a decent job of bringing the two together.

“What Happened” is about more than relitigating the 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton is not running again,  though she may still be part of the public dialogue. More important is how we prepare for 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 presidential race. The most useful aspect of “What Happened” is the analysis of Russian tampering with the electoral process, computer hacking, dissemination of fake news (e.g. false stories created by trolls in Macedonia and elsewhere), phony Facebook accounts, and other 21st century distortions of the process. Various probes are underway about the extent of communication between Trump associates and the Russians and any financial entanglements in those relationships. Such investigations must take their course.

Looking ahead, two challenges jump  out. First is upping our cyber security to protect our electronic communications and deter interference in both news dissemination and electoral processes. Second is building a bench of top-notch candidates with fresh faces, new ideas, and an ability to connect with people. They must understand the policies needed to address the common concerns of our country, including economic and racial disparities.  Getting to the truth is not about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans. It’s about the fate of this nation. Right now, we’re on shaky ground.

Charter Change Subcommittee Meeting Report

Charter Change Subcommittee at Lowell Senior Center

The city council’s Ad Hoc Subcommittee on a possible change to the city’s charter met last night (September 20, 2017) at the Lowell Senior Center. Present were Subcommittee Chair Jim Leary and member Councilor Bill Samaras. Also present were Councilors Rita Mercier and Corey Belanger, and City Manager Kevin Murphy, City Clerk Michael Geary, City Solicitor Christine O’Connor, and Director of Elections Eda Matchak.

The meeting began with Councilor Leary reviewing how the Plan E form of government has been implemented in Lowell (9 councilors elected at large, councilor elect the mayor, a city manager is chosen by council and is chief executive of the city). He also gave examples of how other cities have implemented the plan (district councilors, proportional voting, mayor elected by people).

City Solicitor Christine O’Connor then gave an overview of the process used to change the charter. There could be an elected Charter Commission which she described as a lengthy and cumbersome process; A change made by the state legislature at the request of the city council; or a ballot initiative (although Lowell’s charter does not specifically provide for such a change by ballot, there is a possibility of changing the charter by that method).

Councilor Samaras echoed Councilor Leary’s remarks and said he was anxious to hear from the 35 or so Lowell residents who were in attendance.

Councilor Rita Mercier said she likes the current system although she would favor the people directly electing the mayor, adding that that choice should not be up to just the nine city councilors. She did say that if there was a referendum and voters expressed a desire to change the charter, she would respect that. (She also added that regarding the choice of a site for a new Lowell High School, she feels that process is too far along to change, so she will not feel bound by the results of the upcoming referendum on that issue). Councilor Mercier closed by saying she feels that the nine city councilors who are elected at large do a good job of representing the entire city.

Councilor Corey Belanger believes that the nine at large city councilors do represent the entire city. He is concerned that a charter change would increase the number of city councilors which in turn would make it harder to get things done. He said there would also be a lot more bickering. “I’m results-based,” he said. He also questioned whether changing the charter would make the council more diverse based on the experience in other places. He closed by saying he is keeping an open mind and is just sharing his concerns.

A number of residents then shared their thoughts:

Bev said that she moved to the city several years ago and “if you didn’t grow up here, it’s really hard to learn about 18 different candidates for council and 12 for school committee. I’ve tried to be an informed citizen by reading voter guides and other literature, but it’s impossible to remember the distinctions when you have that many candidates.”

Paul Ratha Yem (who has run and is running for city council) said it is not easy to run citywide. He spent three months knocking on doors and most people still don’t know who he is. He agrees that district representation would make it easier for the voters, and that the voters in all parts of the city would be better represented if the person they elected lived in their neighborhood.

Judith acknowledged comments by Councilors Mercier and Belanger that they represent the entire city, but added, “that’s only if they call you; not everyone is going to call you.”

Kathleen Marcin (former chair of downtown neighborhood group) said she had been neutral on this issue until she heard the point just made by Judith, and that point has now changed her opinion to favor district representation. She said “I’ve been active in the neighborhood group so I’m comfortable calling City Hall about an issue, but that’s not the same as calling the person who represents me.”

Bob Page said he was pleased with the current city councilors but he said the makeup of the city council disturbs him. He said the Asian community is not represented on the council and it should be. He believes a district system would provide the best chance of that happening.

Thayer said he favored a mix of at-large and district councilors.

Jack Mitchell urged the city to engage the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion to do a poll on this issue. He then cited how Kevin Murphy, in his interview to be hired as city manager, spoke of living in the city, walking the neighborhoods, regularly encountering people who live there, as a big benefit. Jack said the same logic shows the benefits of district councilors – they actually live in the neighborhood and would therefore be better able to represent it.

Nancy Judge (chair of Highlands Neighborhood group) urged everyone to become involved in their neighborhood group. She said that is how you find out about new city councilors. She said the current council has been great about attending neighborhood group meetings. She considers the neighborhood to be a district. She said she is pleased with the current form of government but added that she has never experienced any other form of government to compare it to.

Bernie Judge favors changing the form of government. He said low turnouts in city elections mean that just a few sections of the city with high turnouts elect almost all of the city councilors. We do have good city councilors and he likes the city manager form of government, “but we need to tweak the system” so that different pockets of the city would have a better chance of electing councilors who live in those neighborhoods.

Sam said he was a new resident. He said being a minority candidate (Sam identified himself as Cambodian-American) was a challenge because a minority candidate did not have the kind of “old boys’ network” that is so important to getting elected under our current system. He said the current system makes it easier for “majority” candidates. As evidence of that, he cited the fact that most city councilors all come from the same neighborhood. Sam also favors a strong mayor form of government.

Vladimir Saldana said he grew up in Lowell. “If we change the way we elect local officials, it will make a more diverse result. When you walk through your neighborhood and you pass by your city councilor’s house, that’s an important thing.” He said Lowell is an amazing city, but “equitable inclusiveness” is the way to make it better. He said, “It’s absolutely true that not everyone has the same access to city government.”

Cliff Krieger said he does not favor a mix of district and at-large councilors, but would just district councilors, eleven specifically, one from each ward in the city.

I also took a turn at sharing my thoughts. Here is what I said:

My concern is not so much with our form of government as it is with the low level of citizen participation in that government. When we elect our governor, more than 20,000 Lowell residents vote. When we elect the president, that number exceeds 30,000. Yet when we elect our city councilors – the people who oversee public safety, our streets and parks, our drinking water, trash disposal, waste water, snow removal, and so many other things that touch each of us every day or our lives – the number who vote in Lowell plunges to 10,000.

That is strong evidence that many in Lowell feel unconnected from city government. Where are the 20,000 others who vote in Presidential elections? Why don’t they vote in city elections too? They are registered, they know how to vote, they do vote – but not in city elections.

I believe that our biggest challenge is to find ways to better connect more people with local government. Many things should be tried because there is no single solution to this problem. But I do believe that bringing our elected officials closer to the people they represent as would be the case with some type of district councilor system would help and is certainly worth trying.

My final comment is about the Voting Rights lawsuit now pending against the city. Litigation is by its very nature adversarial, but it also presents an opportunity for intense mediation and negotiated solutions that benefit everyone. That’s what happened back in 1988 when the city settled the desegregation lawsuit and it’s what should happen now. The Voting Rights lawsuit is not disconnected from the work of this subcommittee, so I urge you not to miss the opportunity to use that as a vehicle for positive change.

Lowell Charter Change Meeting Tonight

Tonight at 6 pm at the Lowell Senior Center, 276 Broadway, the city council’s Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee will meet to discuss possible changes to the organization of Lowell’s government and to how we elect our city councilors.

The choice of meeting site and past practice of this committee suggest that public input will be welcome, so please make an effort to make it to this important meeting. I understand that the meeting will be video recorded for subsequent replay on LTC, but that it won’t be shown live.

In preparation for tonight’s meeting, it might be helpful to review how the city’s charter has changed through the years:.

Lowell was organized as a town in 1826 but the official City Charter was granted on April 11, 1836 (which makes next year the city’s 175th anniversary but that’s another story). Skipping the early years of alderman and mayors elected to one-year terms, the first modern governmental charter was enacted in 1921. It provided for an elected mayor and a council of 15 members with 9 elected by ward and 6 elected at large. The school committee consisted of 9 members elected at large.

The city adopted Plan E in 1944 which consisted of a city manager, 9 city councilors elected at large, and 6 school committee members elected at large – essentially the system we have today EXCEPT the council election used proportional representation, the voting method that requires voters to rate their candidates 1 through 9. A complex formula that tabulates all the #1 votes, then all the #2 votes, and so on, is used to decide the victors. (This is the system that the 2009 referendum sought to enact).

A major change occurred in 1957 when the city discontinued proportional voting in favor of “plurality voting” which is the system we have now – one vote counts for one vote with no weighting involved.

In the late 1960s, a charter commission was elected. That group proposed a change to a “strong mayor” form of government but the voters rejected that in the 1971 election by a 2 to 1 margin. The defeat of the charter change by such an overwhelming margin seemed to suppress the reform impulse for a couple of decades.

In 1993, there were four non-binding questions on the ballot:

  • Question 1 – Do you support keeping the present Plan E form of government? Yes-8,234. No-8,779.
    • Question 2 – Do you support a change in the city charter to provide for an elected mayor as chief executive instead of an appointed city manager? Yes-10,0441. No-6,760.
    • Question 3 – Do you support a charter change that would provide for district councilors instead of elections at large? Yes-6,841. No-9,213.
    • Question 4 – Do you support a limit on terms of all elected officials in the city of Lowell to a maximum of 4 two-year terms in office? Yes-11,946. No-5,093.

Nothing ever came of any of these questions, probably because that year also saw the election of six new city councilors, a transition that completely changed the city’s direction. Presumably, the almost entirely new council and the new direction satisfied the voters’ desire for change.

In the 2009 city election, there was a question that asked voters to endorse a weighted vote system called “choice voting.” By this method, voters would still select up to nine councilors, but they would rank them one through nine. One of the motives behind the initiative was to increase the chances that a candidate with a small core of highly committed voters would be elected as opposed to another candidate who had broad-based but only moderately committed supporters. That referendum was defeated 57% to 43%.

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