“Trials & tribulations of the City Manager” by Jim Peters

Jim Peters sent along the following essay about the challenges that face a city manager in Lowell:

I was in Chelmsford most of this week for some period of time and one thing I noticed was their trash pickup. They do not have to cram into their one can: trash for the week. They do recycle, but that seems to be at the taxpayer’s and homeowner’s (mostly the same people) behest, not because it is basically mandated by a town ordinance. In Lowell, we were given the choice, by the City Manager if memory serves me correctly, of placing our recycles in recycle buckets or in our one trash receptacle, or having to pay a tax on extremely expensive bags of a purplish color at local supermarkets. Seeing those trash trucks reminded me of our City Manager, not that he is trashy, far from it, he seems very well-dressed. However, he does seem to be the person that instituted the current trash vs. tax (bags) system and I wondered, in Chelmsford, how they got around it when he was Town Manager there.

Continuing my thought process, I started thinking about Bernard Lynch, the City Manager. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to “Has he done a good job?” “How do we know?” might have been a second question. I was operating a leaf blower at the time, and I realized that he had not taxed leaf pickup in Lowell yet, but that there is no leaf pickup in Chelmsford. Perhaps, I thought, that was the connection between Chelmsford’s trash policy and Lowell’s trash policy? This line of questioning myself, and my interest in the many City Managers we have had during my forty years here, created the perfect mental storm. At the center of it stood the question, “Has Bernie Lynch been a good City Manager?”

While listening to the sound of the engine I was using, I thought about the question. I knew that many of my oldest friends probably thought he was a good City Manager because I noticed that they had openly supported City Council candidates who backed Mr. Lynch. No problem there but it didn’t come close to answering my perfect storm question. Others, newer friends but good ones, did not back Mr. Lynch. One even had a sticker in his place of work saying “I Backed Cox.” This of course refered to John Cox, the former City Manager. I did not have to worry about that sticker because I did not really back Mr. Cox as City Manager. My question was more in line with my personal observation that Brian Martin was probably the best of the many City Managers I had known. He could be a bit political, but that is in his nature. From his “State of the City” addresses to his determination to work well with the National Parks Department in promoting Lowell, I thought that he was a good City Manager.

So what did I think that Brian had that Mr. Lynch might be a bit lacking in? Imagination. Brian had a good Lowell-based imagination. He and Paul Tsongas saw the effort to place statues and works of art throughout the city and they did it with aplomb. Brian once presented the Council with a painting of the yellow trolley easing around the banks of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, and he said that line could be completed if we set our minds to it. As Mayor, he tried to target the city’s school culture and change it. He did not have much success, but he tried and that is what really counts, isn’t it?

Bernie Lynch seems to be in a safe job. But there is a lack of energy in safety. I think the thing that I most miss in this administration is the feeling of power you once had when Joe Tully or Brian Martin were in the office. Sure, one of Joseph’s lasting contributions was a shower in the Manager’s Office, but even that takes some thinking. And we used to applaud thinkers in this city. Do I think that Bernie Lynch does not have his trials and tribulations? Of course not. Of course he does. He seems, though, to lack the imagination that allows those trials and tribulations to drive him. On our part, the polite applause is drowning out his challenges. He should be less afraid, if indeed he is afraid, of making mistakes, and more afraid of being seen as a manager of inaction, rather than action

2 Responses to “Trials & tribulations of the City Manager” by Jim Peters

  1. JoeS says:

    You’ll remember of course that Paul Tsongas was a city councilor. It is the council who are charged with setting policy, while the manager is supposed to implement that policy with the greatest efficiency. If we have good ideas about policy, it is the council to whom we should communicate them.

  2. Fran McDougall says:

    I informed the home owner of the inspiration you received while on her property. A former resident was also an excellent wordsmith. He would be impressed.