The week began with a special City Council meeting on Monday to establish the procedure for choosing a city manager and a city auditor now that all the applications are in. For city manager, the councilors had until Friday, March 7 to submit the names of their five “finalists” to the city clerk who will tally those votes to find the entire council’s top five candidates. This is the procedure that was followed in 2006.
The council then took up the issue of citizen input. The input sought is general characteristics or traits desired in the next city manager and not specific names or titles. A public hearing was scheduled for this coming Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 7 pm at the city council chamber. Here, any citizen may approach the microphone and share his or her thoughts on what the council should be looking for in a new city manager. Immediately after the public input is given, the city clerk will announce the names of the five finalists.
As some of those commenting on the post I wrote about this special meeting observed, if the council was truly interested in the public’s opinions on the characteristics of the next city manager, the council would have held this public hearing before the council actually decided who the five candidates to be interviewed will be. Having public input after the council has already made this decision seems a bit patronizing to the public, like the council is just going through the motions of soliciting the public’s sentiments. On the other hand, it’s quite likely that the top five candidates will be pretty clear to anyone looking at the applicant pool in a reasonable manner.
As I’ve said several times this week, this process wasn’t set this past Monday; it was decided back on Tuesday, November 5, 2013. Elections do have consequences.
Last weekend I spent some time watching the 2006 city manager interviews. Back then, the five finalists were Paul Cohen, Diana Prideaux-Brune, Frank Keefe, Bernie Lynch and Ed Kennedy. The city councilors were Mayor Bill Martin, Kevin Broderick, Bud Caulfield, Eileen Donoghue, Rodney Elliott, Armand Mercier, Rita Mercier, Jim Milinazzo, and George Ramirez. There was a strange juxtaposition of Councilor George Ramirez questioning applicant Ed Kennedy while this year we may have Councilor Ed Kennedy questioning applicant George Ramirez. During the coming week I’ll try to post some video clips from the 2006 interviews to give everyone a sense of how they went and what might be expected this time.
Tuesday’s council meeting was the last one for Bernie Lynch as City Manager. He presented a proposed FY2015 city budget which called for a 3.5% tax increase to maintain “level services” meaning that services provided this year would be provided next year at the same level with no increase in personnel or services. This budget did not include increasing the size of the police force by adding more officers. Hiring more police officers was a campaign pledge made by some city councilors so Lynch did address this by recommending hiring only 5 new officers in the coming fiscal year and 5 additional ones in the next. Every five new officers, he estimated, would cost the city an additional $370,000.
The council will have a tough time with this budget. Several councilors have established a “new normal” of no new taxes but that can’t be sustained indefinitely. The cost of services always increase so to just maintain what you already have costs more. Through good management on things like health insurance, energy costs, municipal contracts and just general belt tightening, Lynch was able to provide the same services with the same revenue for several years. That’s clearly not sustainable, however. People will want the same level of services or more but they won’t want to pay extra for them. That’s the council’s dilemma. In the past, this is when councils have dipped into reserves and have played fast and loose with revenue estimates and other book keeping techniques, typically with disastrous consequences. So once the new city manager is on board, the next act of the never ending drama of Lowell politics will be the FY15 budget.
This being Bernie Lynch’s last meeting, he offered some poignant and insightful remarks on Lowell and his tenure as manager. Here’s a sample:
Through all of that, I was hoping to build a sense of community. Lowell is a great city. Every place can become a better community. Hopefully that came through. That we act like a business, but retain our humanity. I’ve had great support from the city council. I’ve been very fortunate that as I walk the streets of the city, the response I get is almost always very positive. Hearing from people in the city who have expressed appreciation has really been heartwarming. I’ve said that I fell in love with the city in the 1970s when it was at its low point and am fortunate to close out my relationship when the city is at a high point.
Co-blogger Paul Marion highlighted these sentiments by Lynch in a post “Bernie: Ideas Matter” in which he quoted the above remarks by Lynch and went on to explain how he, Lynch, and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan were all at UMass Lowell in the 1970s taking political science courses with the same professors. Here’s what Paul identified as the long-term take away from that experience:
Representative democracy, our system, can’t work without a sense of community among the citizens. If people don’t have a stake in public life, they are less likely to participate, minus a crisis. Political science as a social science has no soul without a commitment to humanity. That humanity is expressed in the countless decisions made every day by people who make the government work in any city. I was glad that Bernie Lynch framed his efforts in high-minded terms. It is noble work to be in government, even if it doesn’t look like it sometimes. With the chaos and coarseness that are part of our messy but indispensable democracy, the big fundamental ideas sometimes get crowded out or twisted for short-term gain.
Lynch expanded on these sentiments on Thursday night at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center at a Thank You reception for him hosted by UMass Lowell and the Lowell Plan. I’m not sure if his remarks that night were recorded but they should have been. Perhaps after a decent interval passes, Bernie will put some of his thoughts on the challenge of cities in post-industrial America in writing and share them with us. What he would say would have much value to we here in Lowell and to city-dwellers across the US.