Week in Review, January 26, 2014
Last Tuesday, several Lowell City Councilors outed themselves as vindictive bullies in their handling of the appointment of Salmira Mitchell to the Library Board of Trustees. Here’s the context of what happened: City Manager Lynch presented four board appointments to the city council. The first, of Dr. Julia Hans to the Green Building Commission, did not need council approval. The other three, of Salmira Mitchell to the Library Board, of Bob Malavich to the Planning Board, and of Mike Paglia to the Zoning Board of Appeals, did require affirmation by a majority of the council. Lynne on Left in Lowell has bundled the video of what I write about below in a post along with her own commentary in case you want to check the accuracy of my transcription. My own notes taken as the meeting was in progress were posted on Tuesday night.
Our story starts with the appointment of Dr. Hans to the Green Building Commission. When that arose, Councilor Rita Mercier gained the floor. Here is what she said:
Last week Councilor Danny Rourke had a motion on the agenda to request that the city manager not enter any contracts or extend any contracts of which I did not agree due to the time sensitive nature of many of the contracts, specifically union negotiations that are very close to being finalized and for that reason I felt it was necessary to not support that portion of the motion, however, I would have supported the second part of the motion for the manager to not make any appointments or reappointments to any boards or commissions but the motion was withdrawn before I could have amended it. With this very first appointment, I think it is appropriate time to hold off on any and all appointments. I know that some appointments do not require city council approval such as this first one, the green buildings appointment, but there are three others that do require city council approval. I have nothing against the people that are being selected this evening. I would like to request through a motion that this city council delay action on any and all appointments and reappointments to commissions and boards until such time as a new city manager is selected to choose his or her own selection. We at times approve of appointments for five years. I think it is a lame duck issue. I think it’s very unfair that someone should be leaving soon and appoint someone to a three to five year board and someone is going to take office here and not be able to do anything about that so that’s why I’m making this motion.
[Comments by other councilors]
Councilor Mercier resumed:
The reason I made this motion for the very first one. I did specify that some appointments do not require city council approval. The point isn’t if we support it or we don’t or we have a vote or we don’t. The fact is there are four appointments for a vote this evening. I’m not going to say well this one can go but that one can’t and this one is alright. This isn’t the story with this motion. The story with this motion is that I don’t think the manager should make any appointments whether we have a vote in it or not until the new person or whoever that person is comes in and does that.
Councilor Milinazzo then insisted that Councilor Mericer’s motion (that the manager not make any appointments) was out of order. Mayor Elliott asked the City Solicitor for a ruling. The solicitor said the motion was improper under the state’s Open Meeting Law.
Councilor Mercier resumed:”I think we were put in a very precarious position right now and I don’t appreciate it at all. I’ll withdraw my motion and I’ll vote no on these appointments.”
Because Dr Hans appointment did not require council approval, the council voted to place the communication from the manager on file. That brought up the next item on the agenda which was the appointment of Salmira Mitchell to the Pollard Library Board of Trustees.
Councilor Mercier gained the floor: “I make a motion to table the communication.” Councilor Belanger seconded the motion. Mayor Elliott recognized Councilor Milinazzo, but Councilor Kennedy interrupted and said “a motion to table is non-debatable.” Mayor Elliott immediately ordered a roll call on the motion to table (i.e., to take no action on the appointment of Mitchell). A YES vote would set aside the appointment with no action taken; a NO vote would continue debating the appointment and to ultimately vote on its merits. Here’s the roll call on Councilor Mericer’s motion to table the Mitchell appointment:
Five YES, four NO. The Mitchell appointment was tabled.
Next came the appointment of Robert Malavich to the Planning Board. After some discussion, the Mayor asked “what is the wish of the council?” Surprisingly, Councilor Mercier did not move to table this appointment. No one else did either. Instead, Councilor Milinazzo gained the floor and moved approval. Here’s the roll call to approve the appointment of Robert Malavich to the Planning Board. A YES is in favor of his appointment, a NO would oppose his appointment:
Nine YES. The Malavich appointment was approved unanimously.
Next came the appointment of Mike Paglia to the Zoning Board of Appeals. No motion to table this appointment was made; just a motion to approve. Here’s the result of the roll call with a YES being in favor of the appointment and a NO opposed to it:
Eight YES, one NO. The Paglia appointment was approved by an 8 to 1 vote.
So what happened?
Taking the position that a lame duck city manager should leave board nominations to his successor is reasonable. Under the Plan E charter, the council probably does not have the authority to forbid the outgoing manager from bringing forth such nominations, but the council can certainly express its wishes and then carry them out by rejecting any nominations brought forward. Councilors would have sound policy reasons for rejecting such nominations. A new manager should have the opportunity, to the extent possible, to select his or her own team. As Bill Parcells famously said, “If you want me to cook the meal, let me buy the groceries.”
But that’s not what this council did. This council, by Councilors Mercier, Rourke, Belanger, Kennedy and Mayor Elliott, set aside the nomination of Salmira Mitchell but then all five of them voted to confirm Robert Malavich to the Planning Board and all but Belanger voted to approve Mike Paglia to the Board of Appeals. Why the inconsistent treatment?
Some may speculate that Malavich and Paglia are insiders or otherwise connected in some nefarious-seeming way. That’s certainly not the case. I’ve known both Malavich and Paglia for quite a while and they are both honorable individuals who have given their time and energy for the betterment of the city in many different ways. But so has Salmira Mitchell who I know equally well.
Sensing that insiders or people who are connected had some bearing on this vote is not altogether wrong. Lacking a quorum on the planning board or the board of appeals might inconvenience a developer-friend with a pending proposal. That possibility may have been a factor for the councilors who voted inconsistently. A trustee for the library? What is the library other than the “sex offender in the stacks” stick used to periodically whack the city manager. Lynch is leaving; the library can wait.
Salmira Mitchell is a woman and the other two nominees were men. Isn’t it sad that the only woman on the city council, Rita Mercier, led the charge against the only woman nominee and then voted for the two men. Where are all of those who so vigorously defended womankind when Gerry Nutter was nominated to the election commission months ago? You remember, they condemned Gerry for an impulsive blog comment made in a questionable context. Shouldn’t they be voicing similar outrage at the shabby treatment afforded the sole woman nominee when two male nominees in the exact same situation were embraced unanimously and near unanimously? Their silence is deafening.
The reason the Gerry Nutter appointment was so controversial wasn’t because of Gerry’s views on women. Gerry was attacked because he had written harsh things on his blog about city councilors and his appointment was their chance for payback. Salmira Mitchell has never written anything on a blog but her husband Jack has. If someone has a problem with Jack’s writings, they should take it up with Jack. They shouldn’t take it out on his spouse. Only a vindictive bully would do that. What other conclusion can be reached? If councilors truly opposed appointments by an outgoing city manager, they would have voted against all three. They didn’t do that. They pushed aside one and embraced two. There is no justification for the inconsistency.
Even though Councilors Rourke voted to table the Salmira Mitchell appointment, he should be given the benefit of the doubt for now, partly because he is so new to the council but also because immediately after the other two nominees were approved on Tuesday night, Rourke moved to take the Mitchell appointment off the table, presumably so he could then vote in favor of it in order to be consistent with his other two votes (Mayor Elliott ruled that the motion was out of order). At least Rourke tried. Councilor Belanger should also be treated separately because he’s new but also because his votes were at least partly consistent. He did vote against Paglia’s nomination although he also voted for Malavich. The only councilors who voted consistently all night were the four who voted in support of all three appointments: Councilors Milinazzo, Martin, Samaras and Leahy.
A library is one of the most important institutions in a community. One who truly believes that is my co-blogger, Paul Marion. Read his post on the importance of the Pollard Memorial Library in the context of the above episode along with the twenty plus comments that have been made to it thus far.
The official job posting for City Manager is on the city’s website, right after Traffic Supervisor and Plumbing Irrigation Specialist. Here’s the requirements for education and experience:
Extensive demonstrated knowledge and experience in municipal finance, personnel and management skills, computers, purchasing, grants and community relations. Must have at least 5 to 7 years of increasingly responsible executive management experience, Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration, Business Administration, or a related field. A Master’s Degree preferred and/or comparable government or industry experience. Municipal management experience preferred.
Chris on Learning Lowell has a post that provides background information about city managers in general and the Lowell job in particular.
Chris Scott on The Column blog has a trip down memory lane, pointing out the irony that Bob Healy, the recently retired long-time City Manager of Cambridge, is now being considered as an interim city manager here in Lowell when back in the 1970s, he was unable to get more than four votes for the job from the Lowell City Council.
That’s all for this week . . .
11 Responses to Week in Review, January 26, 2014
I do find the treatment of Ms. Mitchell extremely disturbing.
I would also like to point out, having been chair of the Lowell Cultural Council during the transition from City Manager Cox to City Manager Lynch, how potentially damaging delays in appointments can be. When the council restricted Manager Cox’s ability to make appointments the Lowell Cultural Council had a number of appointments pending. In the months that passed before Manager Lynch came on board and up to speed council membership was so low that if we lost one more member we were in danger of losing our funding from the state. And when Manager Lynch did come on board a number of the individuals who had volunteered to serve on the Council had given up. It is not a good way to treat volunteers.
For those not familiar with the Lowell Cultural Council, it allocates funding for programs in the arts and humanities in the city.
“(Mayor Elliott ruled that the motion was out of order)”
I believe councilor Milinazzo challenged that ruling and was rebuked by the mayor. But indeed the mayor was incorrect in his ruling, and the motion to take it off the table should have been voted on. Hopefully, that will occur in the next meeting.
As I expressed in my comment on Paul Marion’s earlier “A Do Over” blog post – there is not enough respect for the value and importance of the PML and its trustees. A library is an educational, literary, social, cultural and communications center for this and any community. To foster more support particularly for families and children services in the library, in 1980 efforts by Lydia Howard, Jim Droney, Marty Fleming and others (including me) blossomed into the Friends of the Library. Later in the 1980s when an intense, community-wide analysis was done while preparing the Lowell Cultural Plan, the important role of the library was more clearly evident in community surveys, focus groups and other outreach efforts. Many were surprised that a library was so needed and yes – so treasured by the community. New relationships, new partnerships, new and stronger support was afforded the library after that revelation. Support for the Trustees and its Chair Miriam Gallagher in their important project to restore, refurbish and return the Pollard Memorial Library to its historic grandeur and proper place in the revitalized Lowell was community-wide. It’s a jewel in the Lowell crown for its youngest residents to its senior clans and to the Greater Lowell through the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium and to the Commonwealth. While I will admit politics and some cronyism is not new to the City Library – the recent spate of political punts and plays is discouraging… it’s difficult enough – for a lot of reasons – to be a community volunteer… but to have your name and person part of a such a public political game is beyond the pale.
This is a sad state of affairs. Couldn’t have said it better, Mr Howe. Is this the preview of how this current City Council is going to operate, with disregard to rules of order, and state law? I hope not.
I believe City Managers should propose appointments right up to and including their last City Council Meeting Agenda. If the Council thinks the CM is wasting their time they should byu up his contract ASAP. A CM needs to be advancing the City’s agenda even if he has handed in his papers.
Regards — Cliff
Disregard for the open meeting law when there are grandstanding points that can be made by ignoring it is nothing new for some usual suspects on this council.
So where is all this heading? Are the two sparring factions in the city going to realize that the current state of affairs is bad for the city and they will begin to back down? Or are we heading for an even bigger blowup that will be so divisive that it will force them to back down? I have become the defacto Rourke defender on the blogs and in all honesty I’m getting bored with it. He has been a bit too hawkish for my liking. I voted for him because of public safety. Enough of the talking. It’s time for some action. But with that being said I was very impressed with his action/reaction on Tuesday night. It couldn’t be easy to take on Mercier and Elliot and he did so in defense of the wife of one of his biggest political opponents. And then to drive to her house to apologize in person? Mr Howe is the go to Lowell historian. When was the last time something like that happened? Maybe this could be the olive branch needed to start the healing process? Maybe?
I am trying to be fair and keep an open mind on this City Council and specifically, the newest Councilors to the chamber. It is no secret I campaigned for others whom I believed knew how to create jobs in this city. Jobs and quality of life issues for all our citizens is key to me. Tabling Salmira Mitchell’s appointment as library trustee while voting to put two other appointments through, those which deal with real estate and development, is curious. Either you prefer to defer to a new CM and believe he should make all appointments or you do not, period. Otherwise the votes taken appear to be deliberate to accept or reject specific applicants as is usually the case during this process. Why was the appointment of Salmira Mitchell tabled? Was it that the Library is not important enough to receive attention to its needs, deemed inconsequential or the woman nominee was being punished for being either a woman or the spouse of Jack Mitchell. Salmira is dedicated to improving the lives of others whether that be through her job in health care or working tirelessly for the good of her neighborhood. Mike Paglia, I know as well to be an excellent candidate. So, he deserved his appointment as did Mrs. Mitchell. I was heartened by Councilor Rourke’s attempt to right this wrong and understand how difficult it can be to learn the protocal. I hope to see more independence of this kind going forward as real vision and leadership is needed for our City to continue to prosper.
I am very disappointed in the behavior of this new city council. Last Wednesday I asked through the city website for C. Mercier to explain her actions with Salmira Mitchell’s nomination. I still have not received a reply.
I have asked former Mayor Murph to answer questions and I have yet to get a reply. I will take the portrait as an answer
That was also through the City Website!