Healthy Civic Culture

The voter turnout in last fall’s city election was low, but Lowell gets a high rating on its level of civic engagement. Last night, for the second time in a few weeks, more than 100 people packed the City Council chamber to show their interest and express opinions about an important public issue. First, it was the threat by the MBTA to cut train service to Lowell and raise the cost of tickets; last night, it was the Council’s special meeting to talk about what to do about the increase in violence and disorder downtown late at night. The mood of the audience and elected officials was as serious as the situation demanded. The public urged the “deciders” (City Council and License Commission) to act in ways that will help lessen if not eliminate the chaos that recently has been a headline topic in the city.

Following his convincing PowerPoint presentation, Police Supt. Lavallee recommended steps to be taken to immediately address the problem. Most of the public speakers endorsed the recommendations. Several persons from businesses or organizations where there has been little or no trouble spoke against a blanket policy on an earlier closing hour (1 a.m. door closing) that would keep people away from their places. The City Council voted in favor of the Supt.’s plan.

In the public seats of the chamber were leaders and residents from across the city. Activists from Centralville, the Lower Highlands, the Acre, and South Lowell stood in solidarity with their Downtown counterparts. Seated next to them were owners and managers from pubs, restaurants, shops, and bars. Standing with them were owners of condos and commercial buildings. Leaning over to hear from the benches in the balcony were downtown workers, apartment dwellers, employees of the City, University, and Community College. Bloggers and news reporters Tweeted minute-by-minute bulletins. The cameras of Lowell Telecommunications Corp. relayed the proceedings live to those watching at home. This was as close to a “town meeting” experience as Lowell gets with its Plan E municipal government structure. The citizens didn’t get to vote, but they exercised their right to assemble and speak. The system worked.

Last night was the fourth public meeting I had attended this week. On Monday, about 40 residents of Pawtucketville gathered at UMass Lowell’s Cumnock Hall to hear Chancellor Meehan describe campus expansion plans and express their concerns about late night disturbances by young people living off-campus. Tuesday night, the Chancellor presented an update of the University’s master plan construction projects to the City Council’s Subcommittee on Education Partnerships. Wednesday night I was at the Club Passe Temps with members of ACTION (Acre Citizens To Improve Our Neighborhood), at the invitation of President Dave Ouellette. We talked about the University’s growth in that part of the city, including University Crossing and the new residence hall being built on Aiken Street. About a dozen Acre residents, plus two Lowell police officers and two UMass Lowell officers participated. Day by day, night by night, this is what we see in the community. People coming together to talk about how to make Lowell the best kind of city.