City Council Meeting: January 14, 2014

The Lowell City Council meeting of January 14, 2014. The following is not a verbatim transcript but my notes taken as the councilors speak. For brevity’s sake, I just use the last names of councilors.

Elliott: Reads letter from Auditor Sheryl Wright informing council of her planned retirement on February 28, 2014.

Leahy: I want to say thank you but also say that I’m disappointed. Is there any way you will stay an extra two months through the budget process?

Wright: It’s something I’d have to have the entire council agree on and we’d have to have a discussion off line.

Elliott: Motion is on the floor to accept the resignation and place it on file.

Mercier: I thought you were a professional. If you could provide this council with some sort of qualifications that you would recommend regarding the direction the city is going in. Could you list the qualifications your successor should have like how can we avoid being on the DOR watch list.

Wright: Must have MUNIS experience and knowing municipal law are the two things at a minimum that the auditor needs.

Motion to accept retirement passes unanimously on voice vote.

Suspend rules to take up Mercier motion on Fire Department Coat Drive: FF Larry Finn speaks on coat drive. Open doors of firehouses in October and hand out the coats. Great demand. Didn’t meet it. Wants a “penny drive” from February through October to have people visit firehouses and drop off their donations. It all will be used to buy new winter coats for kids in the city who needs them. The name of the account is “Coats from Ann above” at Enterprise Bank.

Mercier: Motion to set up Nativity Scene restoration fund. I set up a fund for this. The Nativity figures are in horrible disrepair. This is a call for the community to donate some money. The Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank, people can donate at any Lowell Five location. Make check payable to “CVB” because Deb Belanger is allowing us to use the CVB’s tax ID number. Also, Youth Build has offered to repair the stable. This isn’t going to cost the city money. It’s important to restore a tradition that has existed since I was a child.

Panhandling Ordinance referred to public hearing on February 4, 2014 at 7pm.

Public Hearing: National Grid. Several procedural votes.

Appointment of Shannon Norton Calles as Library Trustee. Unanimous, no discussion.

Appointment of Melissa Carino (current alternate) to ZBA to fill unexpired term of Corey Belanger. Unanimous, no discussion. [Ed. Note: Ms. Carino sitting as an alternate member of the ZBA voted in favor of the methadone clinic last night].

Resignation of Michael Zaim from Lowell Housing Authority. Belanger asks if position has posted. Lynch says yes, that he’s already interviewed some candidates and has some others to interview.

Several new positions, some grant funded, all referred to public hearings.

Elliott: No subcommittee reports. I hope to have the subcommittee assignments out by the end of this week. Gives a recap of the special meeting discussion from earlier tonight. [Ed. Note: he should just refer viewers to this website].

Council Motions

Mercier/Belanger: Joint motion to have independent audit performed due to Auditor’s pending retirement. Mercier: It shouldn’t be Powers & Sullivan, the current outside auditor for the city. Belanger: Thanks auditor for her service nonetheless I think this petition is appropriate. The new auditor will want this to be done. This is not raising a flag. We owe it to the new auditor.

Milinazzo: I believe we do this anyway every year. I don’t see the need for an independent audit. It’s already being done. This is just an extra cost to the taxpayers. I don’t believe there is anything malicious about this motion. We have just received a third party audit. I won’t support this. It’s a cost we need not incur.
Martin: What’s the annual cost of Powers and Sullivan ($94,000 according to Wright)? This is a substantial undertaking. We do it every year with an outside independent firm. It’s never a perfect audit. I agree with Councilor Milinazzo. I don’t see the need for this expense. We get audit reports every year. They are carefully reviewed. We question the outside auditors.

Leahy: When was the last day of the last audit? (Wright: June 30th but we received it in December. They’re scheduled to be back in May to start the next year’s audit).

Mercier: To put the word “malicious” in a sentence makes me think you feel you think it is malicious. The auditor earlier thanked me for this motion. I’m doing it for the auditor’s protection not because I’m being malicious. [raising voice]. I’m doing it to protect you and the person coming in. It’s like getting an occupancy permit which protects the landlord from some derelict tenant.

Samaras: [microphone off].

Kennedy: I think the motion is well intentioned but I think it’s premature. Given that we do an audit every year it might be wise to wait until the new auditor is hired and let him/her recommend if we should do one. Substitute motion to delay action on this motion until the new city auditor is hired and get that person’s recommendation.

Rourke: Does the same independent auditor do this every year? Lynch: It comes up for renewal every few years but Sullivan has done it for a while. There are only a few firms that do it. Rourke: Could you change auditors for the regularly scheduled audit? Lynch: Yes. Rourke: By using another firm to do the regular audit, the taxpayers wouldn’t be unduly burdened.

Belanger: The point of this motion is to change time. To let the new auditor start right away. “This amendment puts us back to where we’re going to be.”

Milinazzo: As I said earlier. We’re already scheduled to do an independent audit in May. To do a special one you need an RFP. You can’t just call up a firm and tell them to start. It’s very expensive. Where is the money coming from? It’s not budgeted. I understand the intent of the motion but I don’t see why it’s necessary to do it now.

Elliott to Wright: How long have Sullivan been auditor? Wright: Quite a while. Rourke to Auditor: Would you want this done if you were going into a new job? Wright: “I wish it had been done here when I arrived.”

Mercier: I don’t think we need a full court press. Just to go into a scan of every department to see how the books are going. To the auditor: how would you have liked them to proceed. Wright: “The difference is that the books are in good shape now; they weren’t when I got here.” Recommends that current auditing firm come in early to get started.

Leahy: To the manager, would this be a good idea? Is there a quick analysis we can do to ensure the person coming in is OK with this. It seems to be good checks and balances.

Lynch: I agree with auditor to have Sullivan come in early and get started so they can work with the new auditor when that person starts. If you start that process now, it would serve the same purpose that councilors Mercier and Belanger are seeking. That would be more affordable and more timely.

Mercier/Belanger agree to that. Kennedy withdraws his substitute motion. Mercier amends her motion to read simply that Sullivan be asked to come in early. Passes unanimously on voice vote.

Milinazzo Motion to have Lynch stay through completion of budget process. Milinazzo: With no CFO and auditor retiring, I’d like CM to consider staying until FY15 budget completed. [Ed. Note: “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave! “].

Mercier: To manager, you said you would stay under certain conditions. I’d like to know what they are.

Lynch: I’d like to hear what the other members say before talking about that. I did say I would consider staying. The big issue is local aid. Don’t know when that will be known. I would consider staying but I’d like to have a discussion with the council next week about the council’s expectations and my expectations. I’m looking to do some different things with my career and I’m anxious to get started but I don’t want to see our accomplishments diminished.

Mercier: If the budget is so important, why did you resign in March and not July.

Lynch: There’s no good time to leave. There’s always something going on.

Mercier: I feel you should have set a later date closer to the completion of the budget. I firmly believe that the person coming on board has to live with this budget so I think that person should have a big say in creating it. I would hope this council will select someone who knows something about budgets. You were wonderful with budgets. You’re not the model but your budget is. I think the person coming on board, this should be their budget. So I don’t think I’ll be one to support extending your time here. If we extend your contract, it would hinder the process of filling these vacant positions.

Lynch: If there’s not a manager here, these other positions wouldn’t be filled.

Kennedy: I’m going to support this primarily because it’s the prudent thing to do. The budget the CM presents is a proposed budget. It’s the council’s budget. We have to live with it. We face extraordinary circumstances because key people in the budget process are leaving. The best thing to do is to have the CM prepare a budget for the next FY. I think a new CM would appreciate having a new budget in place. There’s always the opportunity for the new CM to do a supplementary budget. The council can’t create the budget itself. If the manager isn’t going to do it, someone else will have to. The manager has a professional responsibility to stay.

Lynch: My professional responsibility is to act in accordance with my contract which I have done.

Martin: To Kennedy’s point, it’s not about anyone’s feelings, it’s what’s in the best interest of the city. The CM has critics on this council but we hear almost universal praise for his financial ability. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that for as long as we can.

Rourke: Asks about the “conditions” the manager wants to set.

Lynch: “Expectations.” If councilors want me to stay they should vote for this motion. Then we meet. My expectations will be reasonable but if we can’t agree in executive session next week then we can just say we couldn’t agree.

Rourke: So if you stay that means you’d be the day to day city manager besides doing the budget? Lynch: Yes

Leahy: I’d like you to stay.

Samaras: Having the budget worked on now is vital. We also need the time to hire the best person for the job. I know that whoever comes into that job will appreciate having a solid budget as a starting point. The new person will risk being misled by department heads who want more.

Belanger: Mr. Manager, I want to thank you for your service to the city. But a week ago from tonight you gave this council your resignation with three freshmen councilors. But your contract says July 31. You are complying with your contract regarding notice. But in my view you’re not living up to your contract. That’s why I don’t agree with contracts. The incoming budget should have his fingerprints on this budget. I don’t want to hear new manager blame prior administration. I believe this council has the talent to pull through this and persevere.

Milinazzo: We did make great strides at our meeting but the soonest we will have a new manager hired will be the end of March. That person probably has to give 30 days notice. Once that person is identified, that person can come in and meet with Lynch to have input to the process.

Rourke: I prefer to know all the facts before making a decision. Is there a reason why you want to do it in executive session?

Lynch: So we can have a frank discussion. If I didn’t have a contract, I could have given my notice last week and not be here tonight. I wouldn’t have done that. I gave my 60 day notice. I want to have a frank discussion about what happens after March 10.

Mercier: We’re in the process of establishing a time frame and we’re going to go into executive session to set your conditions. You’d be holding us up from hiring a new city manager. You just said you’d leave when we hire a new city manager. You’re saying that you’ll help us [raising voice] and now you’re saying you’ll leave as soon as we hire a new city manager. How does that help us? When we hire a new city manager you say you’ll leave right away.

Lynch: I get in trouble for saying what I thought you wanted to hear. If the new manager comes on soon enough, I’ll walk them through what we’re doing. But if a new manager is hired, the new manager should present the budget.

Mercier: And that’s why I’m not supporting this motion. You just made my argument for me.

Rourke: Asks the clerk if it’s possible to go into Executive Session tonight. Mayor asks the solicitor. She says since it’s on the agenda, if part of it needs to go executive session then that would be legal.

Elliott relinquishes the chair to Vice Chair Leahy:

Elliott: My first question to the manager is that department head’s input is due on February 28. Are you going to hire someone temporarily to manage that process, the things that Mr. Moses used to do. it would likely include hiring someone on a temporary basis. [yes]. So we’ll hire someone else, there’s going to be a cost to it. Like we did with Ms. Cashman with the building department. My point is that you did give your notice. That lets the new manager hire a new CFO. The new manager has his/her own priorities and goals. It all comes down to that budget, putting dollars in areas that help advance those priorities. The motion reads “end of the budget process” which is not done until we set the tax rate which is October. We started a process tonight. It is a tight time frame. We should just proceed with that process. My concern is that between March 10 and that uncertain time when a new person comes in, what are department heads doing. The budget process is already underway. The person who comes in on day one with a new CFO should be able to pick the budget up right away. I’m going to amend this motion to extend the manager’s time to April 15. That gives more time to hire someone. I think it’s a fair compromise.

Kennedy: Questions why April 15? Can’t support amendment but I can support the original motion.

Elliott: Deadlines are important. It creates a sense of urgency to choose a replacement.

Rourke: My only concern is having the information before supporting this motion.

Kennedy: The 60 day notice ends March 10. The manager has no intent on taking back that letter of resignation. We can better decide on a date after we meet with the manager.

Mercier: I won’t support the motion or the amendment. If the manager stays, in my opinion, you’re delaying the hiring of those other administrative positions. I can’t support something that I don’t know what the conditions are.

Samaras: The budget process has to be ongoing. Also, the hiring process (of a CM) has to begin. This motion is a win win. It lets us proceed with hiring a new manager while using this manager’s expertise.

Vote on amendment to “stay until April 15”. Amendment fails seven to two (Kennedy and Belanger in favor; all others against).

Vote on original motion (“assist” instead of “complete”). Five yes – Milinazzo, Martin, Samaras, Leahy and Kennedy. No votes were Elliott, Rourke, Belanger and Mercier.

Motion by Rourke to prohibit manager from making appointments or entering into contracts. Nancy Pitkin speaks in opposition on behalf of the library board of trustees. Rourke now moves to withdraw the motion in light of the outcome of the previous motion. Motion withdrawn.

Mercier: I’m glad the motion was withdrawn. Although the intent was fair. I think it’s only fair to not expect the outgoing person to “stack the deck with friends before he goes” (Lynch: “I don’t have any friends.”). I think there are contracts and appointments that need to be made.

Executive Session regarding pending litigation.

One Response to City Council Meeting: January 14, 2014

  1. Lynne says:

    That was intense, wasn’t it?

    I wish I’d gotten someone to take my bet that Rourke would withdraw his motion. I’d be a few dollars richer!