I wasn’t sorry to see February come to an end but when I stepped out the door yesterday and found that March had arrived with air chilled to 3 degrees and talk of more snow tomorrow, I already started to looking forward to April.
When I posted my council meeting notes on Facebook on Tuesday night, I described the meeting as both interesting and bizarre (my meeting notes, which ran to six pages of single-spaced type, are HERE). The interesting parts included an update on the Hamilton Canal District from Trinity Financial VP Abby Goldfarb. For months now, I’ve made it a point to walk or drive through the area on a regular basis and I like what I’ve seen. I also know that on the last day of 2013, mortgages totaling $23 million were placed on 110 Jackson Street (which is the first mill on the right as you go down Jackson from Central) and that renovations on that building have already commenced. The only sour note amidst all the good news was that the transfer of the two parking lots along Dutton Street from the National Park Service to the city is expected to take another 18 months. As the primary steward of natural places in America, the rules of the National Park Service make it very difficult to transfer land to developers, even if that land is a parking lot in the middle of a city and not a verdant forest in the Rockies. Still, the two parking lots are the key to developing the entire area so until they are under city control it seems the momentum of the project will lag. In addition to the update, Trinity also showed its political skills by purchasing two full-page ads in the Lowell Sun to appease the anti-Lynch crowd while also saying publicly at the meeting that the departure of both Bernie Lynch and Adam Baacke will be a tremendous loss to the project and to the city.
The explanation of the net school spending deficit was also interesting. City Manager Lynch explained that there were three primary factors that caused the deficit; two the result of good management (my words, not his). The first of these involved lower than expected costs of health insurance after Lynch got the city’s unions to agree to switch to health insurance programs offered by the state’s Group Insurance Commissioner (GIC). More people than expected switched into cheaper insurance programs and the city’s contributions were much lower than projected which resulted in a lower contribution to school spending. (Although no one seems to ever talk about it, Lynch’s ability to get the city’s unions to agree to this health insurance switch has saved the city millions of dollars and years from now will be seen as one of the most if not the most important accomplishment of his seven plus years as city manager). A similar “good management” unintended consequence occurred with spending on energy for school buildings. That was much less than anticipated due to some of the energy conservation measures the city had implemented.
The third factor was not good management but poor judgment. Lynch explained as tactfully as possible that at budget time he had succumbed to the council’s desire to have no tax increase. Lynch said that his financial advisers had urged him to propose a tax increase to better fund net school spending but that he opted not to and adopted what in retrospect was a too rosy projection for net school spending. He seemed regretful that he hadn’t pressed the council for more revenue back at budget time (not that he would have gotten it). In general, the council’s reaction to this self-analysis was one of “what do you mean we pressured you into not raising taxes?” which prompted me to howl with laughter each time one of the councilors said it because my memory of the council position at budget time was quite different. This episode also signaled the start of a long period of revisionist history that will attempt to rewrite the story of many of Lynch’s accomplishments and decisions while City Manager.
A joint motion by Councilors Kennedy and Leahy that the mayor create and appoint a new subcommittee to enhance business in downtown may not have gotten the attention it deserves. The new committee proposed by this motion seemed to overlap much of what is already being done by the council’s Economic Development Subcommittee. I’m not sure who is on that subcommittee (the city’s website still has last term’s committee assignments listed) but I do know that Corey Belanger is the chair of the Economic Development Subcommittee and that he’s been very aggressive in taking on matters for the committee including the Hamilton Canal project, the Rialto Building and a “Downtown Task Force” of business leaders – all of which are downtown. So why another “downtown” committee? Leahy and Kennedy both took care in saying the intent of the motion was not to usurp the economic development subcommittee and Belanger said all the right things in reply, but this looks like a bit of a turf battle on the council and bears watching.
The bizarre phase of the meeting occurred with Councilor Ed Kennedy’s motion for an explanation from the City Manager as to why he chose not to use the RFP process for the city’s ambulance contract (at that time it was expected that the city’s Board of Health would recommend a new contract with the city’s existing provider, Trinity EMS, and that Lynch would sign the contract but it turned out that the next night the Board of Health delayed taking such a vote). David Daly, who owns a competing ambulance company, had registered to speak on the motion. Daly held the floor for nearly 20 minutes as he criticized the proposed contract. The council has a 5 minute limit on members of the public speaking but to be fair to Mayor Elliott, he’s been consistent in allowing speakers to continue until they’re done so in that regard he didn’t treat Daly any differently than he’s treated anyone else thus far. What was very different was the way in which Daly was allowed to cross-examine City Manager Lynch. He kept saying “through you Mr. Mayor to the City Manager” as if he was a member of the council and not a citizen speaking at the meeting. In more than 40 years of watching or at least following council meetings, I can’t ever remember something like that being done. A member of the public has the right to state his or her opinion but then he’s supposed to sit down and let the elected members of the council do the debating. If this sets a precedent of allowing every disgruntled businessman in the city to come to the podium during council meetings and publicly interrogate the city manager (whoever that might be), it will make for long and chaotic meetings.
The other part of this motion that was unfortunate was the way in which several councilors turned it into a joint testimonial for Daly and John Chemaly, the president of Trinity EMS. While both companies donate substantial amounts to public causes in the city, the council’s express linkage of such “generosity” to the awarding of a contract leaves the clear impression that these councilors see big donations to Winterfest as having more bearing on the awarding of a city contract than on the benefits of the bargain to the taxpayer. When members of the public express cynicism about the city’s contracting process, we need look no further than these type of “generosity equals an advantage in the award of a contract” council soliloquies as fuel for that fire.
There was also a lot of talk about snow removal at the meeting but that can be summed up simply by saying it was done well in some places, not so well in others, and it would be nice if snow banks in downtown could disappear right after a storm to permit people to park. Whether it was the snow topic that kept coming up or something else, Councilors Martin and Kennedy voted against waiving the 10pm deadline so the meeting ended abruptly with a couple of matters still pending.
In other news, deadlines for applications for City Auditor and City Manager ended this week. The council meets tomorrow night to discuss the process from here. Presumably there will be some mechanism by which councilors will pare down the list of applicants to a handful that get interviews. Some are already expressing cynicism about the process, but as anyone who remembers back to the hiring of Bernie Lynch will recall, the interviews count for a lot. March will be a fascinating month in Lowell politics.