Lowell City Council Meeting: June 20, 2017
Vote – Approve a preferred site for Lowell High School. 64 speakers registered to speak.
[Resident speakers began at 6:45 pm. They seemed about evenly divided between Cawley and Downtown Option 3. The public input portion of the meeting ended at 10:58].
Mayor Kennedy relinquishes the chair to Vice Chair Dan Rourke. Speaking from the floor, Kennedy says there are as many reasons to keep the high school downtown as there are reasons not to put it on Cawley. But he doesn’t think he will sway anyone’s opinion. He cites the 10 taxpayer petition to put this decision on the ballot that was presented to them by one of the speakers. He asks the city solicitor of the council could both put this matter on the ballot while also sending a recommendation made tonight to the SBA. Solicitor says that would be allowable. Kennedy says that no matter what the council does tonight, the citizens can still get the requisite signatures and put it on the ballot anyway. Kennedy says he earlier opposed a referendum, but given the tie vote of the building committee today, there is no recommendation before the council tonight. He suggests the council is split 5 to 4 on this. Given the amount of money at stake and the questions about how much the additional costs of Cawley could be, he says it will be “an open ended ticket for the taxpayers” and he has to ask “who is representing the tax payer?” He says going for Cawley, we go for the most expensive option that has all of these other costs that have yet to be determined. He says this might not bankrupt the city, but it will restrict the ability of the city to do other projects. Then he says “we’re supposed to be representing the neighborhoods” but plopping a 3500 student school into the middle of a neighborhood will have a major impact on the neighborhood. And you can’t say “I’m for economic development but I won’t do eminent domain downtown, but I’m fine doing it on Route 38.” He adds everyone who spoke is well meaning, but there are a lot of other people who aren’t here. We’re supposed to represent the entire city. We created a subcommittee earlier tonight to look at district representation because some people think we don’t represent everyone. We have to represent everyone, including the kid who doesn’t have a computer at home and needs to go to the library to compete. Who is speaking for those kids? Well, I am. The only thing that is going to bring the whole city together is if we do a purely democratic process. The thing that people will most respect, that they won’t argue about, will be if we put it on the ballot. So Kennedy moves that this petition be referred to the solicitor for a recommendation and the council vote on it at next week’s meeting.
Councilor Elliott asks solicitor if this violates the open meeting law because it wasn’t advertised. Solicitor says it is within the scope of what was advertised.
Councilor Leary says he will not support the referendum. If we want to bring it back at some later date but not tonight. He says if the city wanted to put the high school in his neighborhood, the Highlands, he would welcome it. We talked about the rich kids, the poor kids, but no one has talked about the average kids that no one pays attention to. He has a lot of respect for Brian Martin. He has done many great things for Lowell. It pains me that I don’t agree with him on this issue. Reviews some of the history of this process. Says many things that were said tonight are not true. It is true that the biggest problem going to Cawley is transportation. It’s also true that we haven’t explored that enough. But there’s also traffic issues downtown.
Councilor Milinazzo says we aren’t voting on the referendum tonight, we’re voting to send it to the solicitor for review and it will be back before the council next week. Regarding the number of $20mil for state transportation improvements, he says that our state delegation contacted Mass DOT and they did an estimate of $20mil and that the state wasn’t going to pay for it. He then says he does think there has been a failure of leadership on this issue. He can’t believe this community is so divided over this. He understands the passion people have for their children’s best interest. He’s tried to take in all the emails, speeches, comments. He says most have done their homework but many disregard anything that doesn’t advance their decision. We’re supposed to base our decision based on facts, but we have seen bullying, threatening, and intimidating. Is this a lesson we want to teach our children? This did turn divisive. There were threats made to members of the council in order to lock up that fifth vote. I do think we need a new high school. I think if Cawley prevails on a 5 to 4 vote with a tie vote by the building advisory committee, I think the Cawley proposal will collapse under its own weight. He says social media has badly hurt this process. We have to remember that the same children we are so concerned about have witnessed this bullying. Maybe a referendum would be the best way to begin the healing process. Says he said a week ago that if Cawley won, he would switch his vote, but he’s not going to switch his vote. He says because of the way the fifth vote was delivered, he doesn’t want to be associated with it.
Councilor Mercier – Asks City Manager how he voted on the building committee (He says for Cawley). Says this is the most difficult, expensive vote she’s taken on the city council. She has put a lot of effort into reaching the decision she believes is best for the city and the students. These are the reasons she is voting for Cawley: She says she wants the best for Lowell students, something brand new like the Cawley site. Mentions no disruption for students, for safety of not going to school in work zone. To the many LHS employees who told her they wanted Cawley but were afraid of repercussions. To the dentists. To all future students who will be able to take advantage of after school programs at great athletic fields. To special needs kids who have been hidden in the basement on LHS, this will give them better space. Cawley provides a sense of community and will be a destination. She knows that there will be a mass exodus of parents and students out of Lowell to avoid going to school in a work zone. Great things will happen to downtown. It will generate lots of tax revenue. We will find creative solutions for the reuse of the downtown site. Cawley will be much safer because there will be fewer doors to monitor. The city council in 1990 bit the bullet and voted to build new schools in Lowell. That was leadership. Let’s do the same in 2017 and show vision and leadership.
Councilor Belanger – This process has been an odyssey of 24 months. The council has worked hard to reach a decision here tonight. He wants to explain how he reached his decision. It is not through political contributions or by threats. I started on the council in 2014 and the high school debate was ongoing. I was a downtown business owner so I had a good idea of what direction the downtown should go. I said on many occasions that the high school should move out of downtown and we should start over. I have never said I supported the high school downtown. But in February, cost estimates came in and they were sky high. So I began to pivot because the financing might overcome my desires. I explored other options including putting it on the ballot in November but no one wanted it then although it seems very popular tonight. I understand passions are high, but there are several out there who have crossed the line. I have overlooked those comments for the time being. I have looked at every option and in the end, I came up with the decision that Cawley Stadium was the best option. It seemed like the will of the people presented just two choices, Cawley or Option 3 Downtown. And between those two, Cawley is better. I’m prepared to vote tonight and I’ll vote for Cawley. There’s still a long way to go. I will remain flexible and will do what is best for the students and the tax payers.
Councilor Leary – Asks about the $20mil state transportation estimate. He says he hasn’t heard anything about it and is wondering why some people might have that and some might not. Manager Murphy says the information wasn’t relayed to him. He says the delegation might have gotten that information from Mass DOT, but he just hasn’t received it. He goes on to say that if Option 3 wins, he will vote to take the dentist office by eminent domain, he just thinks Cawley is the better option. Says we should have bused high school students a long time ago, even to downtown, because forcing kids and families to pay for LRTA buses. He predicts that if nothing is done to the high school, kids and families will choose to go elsewhere.
Mayor Kennedy moves the question on forwarding the referendum petition to the solicitor. Motion fails with Kennedy, Leahy, Samaras and Milinazzo voting yes and Elliott, Mercier, Belanger, Rourke and Leary voting no.
Councilor Samaras asks City Manager for a report on what eminent domain takings would be required for Cawley. He also asks for updates on project budget. He then says it’s going to take a long time for this to heal. At the beginning he was thrilled there was so much energy about building the high school. It’s OK to have differences of opinion. He then reviews the thought process that led him to decide to vote for Option 3. Mostly because it would allow for the construction of a new building without disruption to the existing students and having it downtown works best for the most students. He says the main evidence he used in reaching his decision was his experience in being Headmaster for 19 years. He says Lowell and Lowell High have a ‘symbiotic” relationship that is unlike any other that he has seen. He cites the proximity to the many things in downtown. Fifty years ago Pat Mogan had a vision for downtown, that education and economic development go hand in hand. As downtown has revived, Lowell High has been at the center of it. He believes that Mogan is as accurate today as he was back then.
Councilor Mercier moves that the council vote in the manner they elect a mayor by stating their preferred option. Motion passes.
Councilor Leahy thanks everyone who spoke. Says either site is going to be a great site for the high school. Students bring a compelling argument. We should listen to them. When we first started this the cost was going to be a lot lower. We thought the reimbursement rate would be much higher. There are still a lot of unknowns on both sites. I do know that if the high school stayed downtown, it will be a great project that will be done safely. He says when he was on the school committee, we struggled to get buses to take kids from the high school to Cawley for athletics and a lot of people didn’t want to pay for that. There were promises of new science labs and many other things, but the money was never there. I’m going to vote for downtown because I like that site. After tonight, we really have to explore whether we can afford this because we still don’t know how much it’s going to cost. How many people who live here are going to have to leave because they won’t be able to afford to keep living here. Another thing that’s disappointing is that we haven’t heard from the school administration. They should have advised us on what they thought was best for the students but they’ve been silent.
Councilor Belanger wants to mention finances. He says on paper Cawley is a higher price but he believes Option 3 has the greatest chance for cost overruns. I think we have failed the public by not educating them on the true financial picture. Out of hundreds of speakers tonight, only one said to look at the cost of both as being unaffordable. This is going to result in a 9 percent tax increase for only a single building. That’s why I wanted to explore other options earlier, but no one was listening. I was a man on an island. That’s one place I think we’ve failed. It does look like a decision will be made in favor of Cawley, but I don’t think it’s over.
Councilor Elliott thanks everyone who has contacted him about this. It’s unfortunate the way this has played out, starting with the Article 97 issue and up to tonight with a well-orchestrated referendum attempt tonight. I wanted a referendum weeks ago and Mayor Kennedy and others wouldn’t support it. Kennedy calls for a point of personal privilege and says when Elliott put forward that motion, he was just looking for a headline he didn’t even argue in favor. Elliott says the reason Kennedy voted against it before was because he thought Option 3 was going to win. Elliott says for 20 years he has made his mark on the council by voting against what he thought was unnecessary spending. He feels like he’s represented the people who struggle to pay their taxes. He thinks he is doing the same thing now. He says by keeping down taxes previously, the city has adequate levy capacity to fund and afford a new high school. He says his wife and her family are willing to give up the field at Cawley named for her brother because they believe that’s the best site. He feels an obligation to provide a safe environment for students. He says with the unprecedented action by the health department in condemning the downtown site something has to be done. He says that a renovation will lead to cost overruns and we’ll be left with a substandard school. He says as the Sun editorial points out, that would be throwing good money after bad. He asks what he would want for his own children? Would he want them in a hazardous construction zone? No. He predicts future generations will see this vote as a turning point in the city’s history. He sees downtown being able to be developed. Where are we going to get the money to pay for this? We can do it the old way and raise taxes. Or we can take untaxable property and develop it. Look at the mills that have been developed downtown. We have filled 96 percent of the vacant mills in this city. The high school site is prime real estate in downtown. People want to live in urban areas. There is a market for housing in downtown. I see what the future of downtown can be by relocating the high school. I think it is fiscally responsible to do that. He says he’s thinking outside of the box by seeing the revenue stream from a redeveloped high school site as helping to pay for the cost of all the other things needed at the new high school. Says he’s voting for Option 5.
Rollcall – Cawley wins on a 5 to 4 vote
For Cawley – Rourke, Leary, Mercier, Belanger, and Elliott.
For Downtown – Kennedy, Leahy, Milinazzo, and Samaras
Meeting adjourns at 12:22 am.