Lowell Week in Review: January 12, 2014

Photo by Corey Sciuto

The week began with the inaugural ceremonies for the city council and the school committee. Rodney Elliott was elected mayor unanimously. Tuesday brought the new council’s first regular meeting although much of the agenda was set back in December when three consecutive meetings were missed due to a snowstorm, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. An innocuous looking item at the end of the agenda calling for the council to discuss an employee contract in executive session created some pre-meeting controversy. The request had been placed on the agenda by City Manager Bernie Lynch. The contract to be discussed was his. The controversy at that point was whether to hold that discussion in executive session or in public.

There is now a theory making the rounds that the reason some councilors were so adamantly opposed to the executive session was because they feared that the manager would be able to win over some wavering councilors to support a contract extension in the less scrutinized and more deniable secret session. By forcing the debate to stay public, the wavering councilors would be less likely to jump ship. Whether that is true or not, it seems quite clear that Lynch planned to resign whether or not there was an executive session. He had a letter prepared and, according to the UMass Lowell students in the balcony that night, the letter was sitting on the manager’s desk in plain sight for most of the night. They obviously were too far away to read it; the point is that the letter wasn’t hidden away ready to be used as a contingency.

Lynch’s concise resignation letter, read by him in open session, stunned the council and the city. He leaves March 10 unless he is willing to comply with the council’s request that he stay to finalize the FY15 city budget. With some of Lynch’s biggest critics now saying he has a “moral obligation” to stay and with the council taking up a motion on Tuesday to strip him of some of his powers from now until his departure, it would seem to make it easy for him to say “no thanks” to the request to stay. But he might.

Regarding the contemplated limit on the manager making appointments or executing contracts, I tend to think a literal imposition of that is a violation of the Plan E charter and therefore illegal. More likely, the motion will be interpreted as a “request” by the council to the manager. Perhaps Lynch’s decision to stay beyond March 10 will be influenced by who will be his likely successor. Assuming that person is soon apparent, if it’s someone with whom Lynch is on good terms, he might be likely to stay longer to aid the transition.

The council will also meet on Tuesday before the regular meeting to discuss the process of selecting the new manager. It seems unlikely that there will be an extensive search since several local candidates with strong council support quickly emerged. If the majority of the councilors have already made up their minds, or have narrowed it down to a couple of local candidates who have already indicated their intention to apply, there’s no need to go through a nationwide search charade just to be able to say there was a nationwide search. Besides, it’s unlikely that anyone in the fraternity of bureaucrats who manage municipalities as a profession would jump at the chance to come to Lowell given the rocky ending Lynch is enduring.

Whether it’s a coincidence or not, other administration leaders also announced their departure from city government this week. Sheryl Wright, the city auditor since 2007 will retire at the end of February and Adam Baacke, the assistant city manager for planning and development will leave in early March for a similar position at UMass Lowell. They join former Chief Financial Officer Tom Moses who left late in 2013 to become the town manager in Hudson, Massachusetts.

The Nativity Scene – Sadly, by the time Lynch announced his resignation at the end of the council meeting, many of us who had watched the meeting to that point were suffering from the political version of post traumatic stress disorder after enduring the debate on the motion to move the city-owned nativity scene back to its traditional spot adjacent to city hall from its 2013 home in front of St. Anne’s Church. I wrote a separate report on the manger debate as it happened and then another one the following night after meeting with students from a UMass Lowell class that attended the council meeting. I’ll mention posts on other local blogs on this topic further below, but for now, here’s a short clip of remarks made by Councilor Rita Mercier, courtesy of Lynne from Left in Lowell.

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In other (less controversial) business on Tuesday night, the council passed a couple of motions that had been filed in December by Marty Lorrey regarding the naming of the walkway near the now being torn down University Ave bridge for a group of UMass Lowell veterans who died during World War Two and a second motion having the council voice its support for delaying the implementation of the new flood insurance premiums.

The council also transferred a parcel of land at the end of Westford Street that will aid in a new commercial development at the corner of Westford and Wood Street. This project was controversial at the start because it was thought to put at risk the Bowers House, the oldest home in the city of Lowell. The community, the planning department and the developer, however, worked together to find a resolution that preserved the house and was satisfactory to all. (See story on Learning Lowell).

While the council intended to send the proposed anti-panhandling ordinance to the public hearing that would be a pre-condition to enacting the ordinance, instead the city solicitor recommended that the matter be discussed in the executive session already planned for this meeting that was to discuss pending or threatened litigation.

Outside of the council meeting and the city hall departures, some good things happened in the city last week. Farley-White, the developer that already owns the Wannalancit Mills purchased the old Wang manufacturing facility on the Pawtucket Blvd (most recently owned by M/A-COM for $15.5 million). Stacie Hargis, a council candidate last year, announced that she would be leaving the Merrimack Valley Small Business Center to become an Assistant Professor of Business at Middlesex Community College.

Senator Eileen Donoghue’s office announced that the state had allocated $15mil to redo the Lord Overpass to improve the connection between the Gallagher Terminal and the Hamilton Canal District. This is certainly good news. Hopefully, the new design will be the first step in filling in the automotive moat that separates downtown from the Acre and the lower Highlands. If you think driving through the area is bad, just try crossing Thorndike or Dutton Street on foot – it’s not easy and even with crossing lights it’s a risky undertaking. The walkability of Fr. Morissette Blvd was addressed last year. If this project makes Thorndike Street easier to walk across, all we’ll have left to fix is the Lowell Connector and we’ll have remedied the major car culture misadventures of decades ago.

We got a taste of the political year to come on Saturday when five candidates for statewide office attended the meeting of Greater Lowell Area Democrats at the Radisson Hotel in Chelmsford which I wrote about yesterday. The candidates (and office they seek) were Steve Grossman (governor), Juliette Kayyem (governor), Steve Kerrigan (lt governor), Maura Healey (attorney general), and Tom Conroy (treasurer). The activity level is intensifying now because the local Democratic caucuses to select delegates for the spring nominating convention will be held during February. The Lowell caucus is scheduled for Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 11 a.m. at Lowell High School. Anyone who is a registered Democrat is able to attend and participate. The Democratic State Convention will be held on June 13th and 14th this year.

Around the blogosphere: Left in Lowell had plenty of posts this week, with several posts about the nativity scene controversy and the manager’s resignation. Jack Mitchell picked a good time to launch his local politics blog, Lowell Live Feed. He wrote about the nativity scene, the manager’s departure and speculates about his replacement. Paul Belley had a couple of posts about the manager’s departure on Captain’s Log. Besides writing about the Bowers House, Learning Lowell has a nice analysis of a proposal by former Mayor Patrick Murphy to alter our system of property taxation. On The Column blog, Chris Scott had posts about the search for a town manager in Dracut; an update on the death of Alyssa Brame while in custody of the Lowell Police; and a report on the departure of Adam Baacke from the city’s Planning Department.

In other Lowell-related stories from the internet, the Globe had a follow-up story to its earlier article suggesting that Charles Dickens may have gotten the idea for A Christmas Carol during his visit to Lowell. In the new story, the author of the first writes of the comments he received that made clear that the idyllic time of happy farm girls working in the mills by day and engaging in cultural activities by night was short-lived and quickly overcome by economic pressures.

I also discovered a blog called Retro Roadmap which is written by someone who enjoys “finding and photographing cool old places and things from the past.” A recent post tells of an interesting experience at Dana’s Luncheonette in Lowell.

10 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: January 12, 2014

  1. Paul Sweeney (AKA Paul@01852) says:

    Slight correction in your item on the sale of the former M/A-Com facility on Pawtucket Blvd. M/A-Com never “owned” the building; the most recent owner from whom Farley-White purchased the building was Winstanley Enterprises of Concord

  2. C R Krieger says:

    I still think the Manager’s resignation was contingent upon a satisfactory outcome of the Executive Session. No ExSession or no comity, resignation.

    As for the Manger, if it goes, what else goes?

    Regards  —  Cliff

  3. Robert Greenhalge says:

    With the manger issue, I have been very disappointed with the backlash and tone of many.

    I can recall as a child being brought to visit the manger around Christmas and was always amazed by the entire scene. Not only the manger, but a beautiful tall building behind which is our city center. It was really a striking scene.

    It should be remembered that Christmas is a federal holiday whether you like it or not. I also have never found any quote in our Constitution which states “separation of church and state”. If you can find those words; please inform me. A manger in front of city hall hardly represents government imposing one religion over another. The city solicitor can disagree day and night, that is why we have a newly elected body. The manger at city hall has never been illegal for decades, all of a sudden now it is?

    In the U.S., we have freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.

    If a manger, or any other religious symbol from any religion, upsets you that much that you must write quickly to the ACLU, I recommend getting a hobby. We have murders going on our streets folks, the manger is NOT an issue.

    If the manger is “unconstitutional” at city hall, I call immediately to forbid the Southeast Asian Water Festival from taking place on the Boulevard walkway, or ANY public place for that matter.

    If we are going to go the route of pleasing the few who are “offended” by such things, then w all must suffer.

  4. Joe says:

    There are many in the Lowell blogosphere that seem to think the city is in revolt. But is it? At some point in the near future the blogs are going to look around and realize that the “revolt” is actually the same 50-100 people that have always been the most vocal with Lowell politics. In the long run they might turn out to be correct but in the short term it’s nothing but sour grapes. The blogs made it very clear who did and more importantly who didn’t support the city manager. The political fence was removed. And the result? The result was an absolute rejection of Bernie and the blogs. Where is the self evaluation ? All we hear about is shady Lowell this and that. How can the progressives of Lowell make political gains if they are unwilling to admit even one mistake?

  5. DickH says:

    The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court has interpreted this “establishment clause” to prevent the government from favoring one religion over another or religion over non-religion. By owning and erecting a religious display in front of City Hall, I believe the city of Lowell violates the establishment clause.

    If a group of private citizens who want the Nativity display to be erected in front of City Hall would just form some kind of organization, take custody of the display, set it up and maintain it, I think it would be Constitutionally permissible for the display to be at that site provided any other group was allowed to erect a similar display related to its religion. But I don’t see that happening. I just see people who have been in the ruling majority for a very long time who now enjoy complaining about their victimization but are unwilling to do anything other than talk.

  6. DickH says:

    Joe – I’ve been following Lowell politics pretty closely for more than 40 years and this is just another swing of the pendulum that keeps on swinging. It will swing back at some point, kind of bracketing the middle. That’s what happened in the 2007 and 2009 elections. It happened in 1991 and 1993. Twenty years from now maybe we’ll put 2013 and 2015 in the same group. I’m sorry to see Bernie Lynch go, but I’m excited about seeing how things play out. To me, it’s just a new chapter in a very long story.

  7. Robert Greenhalge says:

    We shouldn’t have to “do” anything.

    The manger has been set up, in front of city call, for decades. All of a sudden, now, it is illegal? People just don’t buy it, and for good reason. Christmas is a federal holiday and the city goes out of its way to please other cultures and religions events. The manger has never been a problem, for literally decades, until our recently disgraced ex Mayor agreed with 1 lawyer that it was illegal. I could find you a lawyer who will disagree with the city solicitor in a heartbeat.

    If we cannot have the manger placed in front of city hall because it offends the 1% of those ignorant amongst us, then why do we have Christmas vacation for public schools? Is it a “holiday” vacation? Of course not. It is a Christmas vacation.

    The manger deserves a place in the spotlight, as religious freedom, just like many other religions do.

  8. Joe says:

    As a daily reader of your blog I must say I find your views of the near future very refreshing. I understand the support for the city manager. It’s well deserved and I understand the fear of “change” that could be in our near future. But what I do not understand is the scorched earth tactic by some. It seems a lot more personal and I can’t imagine it will be good for the city. If the city manager had been fired I would completely understand this reaction. But he resigned. He resigned because of the election I.E the voters. It just seems like a bit…..much

  9. Renee Aste says:


    It’s only January in regards to the manger. I think we can all calm down and work it out.

  10. Dan Murphy says:

    @Robert Greenhalge

    The former mayor had nothing to do with this manger discussion one way or another. Given the way you have described him and the dissenting opinion, however, I understand why you have tried to make that false link.

    I will say this: I am much more concerned with the casual way in which Councilor Mercier essentially asserted that individuals with different spiritual beliefs are not only unwanted in our city, but unwanted in our country. I wonder how some in the Khmer community will respond to that. Or what about others in our growing Indian community, or among our recently-immigrated Iraqi refugees? Or what about secular and agnostic residents? As a Catholic, I am proud that Pope Francis in his Christmas address–this is about a Christmas scene, after all–sought to include those inside and outside the faith, including non-believers, in his call to commit to peace. Our actions as humans of all beliefs are much more important in this light than our symbols, particularly if they do not move us towards peace with each other. I hope that next Christmas season, the dialogue centers instead on how we can be more Christ-like in our treatment of each other, an ideal which persons of all faiths and beliefs can understand and appreciate on its most basic level.