Week in Review: March 16, 2014

City Manager Selection Process

At noontime on Monday Bernie Lynch walked out of Lowell City Hall and ended his seven plus year tenure as Lowell City Manager. At 12:01 the Michael Geary administration began. The will be short-lived because Geary did not apply for the position on a permanent basis and is will fill the office only until a new manager is hired and begins work. Geary will then return to being City Clerk.

Not coincidentally, the council meeting on Tuesday night had only three motions, all by Jim Milinazzo, two of which were noncontroversial. The third asked to restart the city manager search process due to the unauthorized release of the names of the 29 applicants but when Councilor Milinazzo spoke on the motion he stated that he really didn’t want to start the process over again; he only wanted to give each of his colleagues “a chance to discuss” the issue.

More likely the objective was to give each councilor the opportunity to deny being the leak. Or leaks, because there were three different ones. First, the names of the 29 applicants were released; then the names of the six finalists were released; and then the tally of which councilor voted for which applicants leaked.

Councilor Kennedy identified himself as the one who released the names of the finalists. He said he didn’t believe it was wrong because he his recollection from the prior week was that the council had only “discussed” keeping the names confidential until after the public participation forum on Wednesday night but that the council had never formally voted on that. Some councilors concurred, others remembered differently, but the minutes from the prior meeting backed up Kennedy. However, no one owned up to leaking the names of the 29 applicants or the tally sheets and the council as a whole seemed content to drop the matter.

Whether the early release of the names caused turnout at the public input event on Wednesday to be suppressed can’t be known, but the fact is only about ten people attended and spoke that night. The council did take advantage of that meeting to set the ground rules for the upcoming interviews. Each of the six applicants will have a ten minute opening statement, ten minutes of questioning by each councilor, and then a five minute closing statement. Because that totals nearly two hours per applicant, the council decided to interview only two per evening and selected the evenings of March 25, 26 and 27 as the interview nights, all starting at 6 pm. They also set Saturday, March 29 as the backup date.

Given the council’s actions to date, it seems likely the council will be ready to vote at the conclusion of the last interview and that no further investigation such as site visits or background checks will be conducted. It’s unlikely the vote will take place on the night of the last interview but it’s unclear when it will be. The council seems anxious to get this done as quickly as possible so it’s unlikely they would wait until the next regular council meeting – that would be April 1st which gives additional reasons for doing it at another time. Perhaps there will be a special meeting on that Saturday, March 29.

In the past, the city manager has been elected on a roll call vote of the council with each councilor stating the name of his or her preferred applicant. The first one to get five votes is the city manager pending negotiating the terms of employment (although not a “contract” in the case of this council). Traditionally, prior to the roll call, each councilor speaks and identifies who he or she will vote for and why so the actual vote can be anti-climatic. But that is not required so if councilors want to heighten the drama they can go right to the roll call.
For those of you who have missed it, the six finalists for the city manager’s job are:

• Greg Balukonis who has been the administrator of North Reading, Massachusetts since 2005. Mr. Balukonis is also a finalist for the position of Dracut Town Manager.
• Robert Bruner who is the former city manager of Birmingham, Michigan. He held that job for three years.
• Peter Graczykowski who is the former City Manager of East Providence, Rhode Island. He held that job for two years.
• Daniel Keyes who has been the administrator of Blackstone, Massachusetts since 2011.
• Kevin Murphy who has represented the Highlands and Acre neighborhoods of Lowell as a State Representative since 1997. He also worked for Lowell as an Assistant City Solicitor for 13 years.
• George Ramirez who is the Administrator of Devens, the former U.S. Army base in Ayer, Massachusetts, that has been developed as a residential and business zone. He is also an attorney who served on the Lowell City Council in 2006 and 2007

Jack Mitchell on Lowell Live Feed has posted the resumes and cover letters of each.

School Building Assistance

The School Committee and School Administrators attended Tuesday night’s city council meeting to give a presentation on the city’s options when applying to the state for reimbursement for new schools and renovations that are being contemplated. The school department has conducted a major study on the needs of the entire system and has formulated some recommendations. The council must now endorse these recommendations and forward them to the state’s school building assistance bureau no later than April 12, 2014 in order to qualify for this year’s awards. This puts the council in a bind because several councilors, I suspect, are most interested in this process as a way of moving Lowell High School out of downtown Lowell. The school department’s recommendation advises that LHS be renovated in place. Deputy Superintendent Jay Lang assured councilors that the current recommendation will not be binding and can be altered once the state has received it. Given the tight time frame, councilors will have to make a leap of faith on that since there is no time to revisit the issue. What risks being lost in all of this is the fact that the desperate need in the Lowell school system is for more seats in the elementary and middle grades, not at Lowell High. Keep that in mind as this is discussed by the council in the coming weeks and judge for yourself who is truly interested in education the city’s children and who has other agendas to pursue.

Paul Sheehy

When the history of Lowell in the post World War Two era is written, Paul Sheehy will have a prominent place in it. His most lasting achievement, perhaps, was his involvement in the creation of today’s UMass Lowell from the schools that preceded it (co-blogger Marie will have more on that in another post). Paul died this past week and was buried yesterday. He and my dad were contemporaries. They grew up with a love of baseball and often played with or against each other. They joined others of that generation like Ed Early and Victor Forsley in the Lowell contingent that attended night classes at Suffolk University Law School in the early 1960s. They all practiced law together and went into politics in Lowell. Paul Sheehy devoted his life to public service and his passing closes one of the great political chapters in Lowell’s political history.

Happy St Patrick’s Day . . .

3 Responses to Week in Review: March 16, 2014

  1. Joe says:

    It looks like the selection of the next city manager will come down to the two Lowell candidates. What’s surprising to me is there doesn’t seem to be much of a battle going on behind the curtain. We are fairly deep into the process and it’s strangely quiet. I’ve read some of Jack Mitchell’s blogs about Lowell’s history of “wait your turn” politics. Without a doubt this is the case in Lowell but in reality this is also the case in just about every other place on earth. Wait your turn politics is alive and “well” from communist leadership to monarchy’s to democracies. So my question to you Mr Howe is this. Without being specific I’m wondering if there is value in coming in a “respectful” second place in a situation similar to the one that is about to take place? Nobody understands Lowell’s political history the way you do and I’m wondering if once again history will be the blueprint to our future.

  2. DickH says:

    Joe – In politics it’s important to take the long view of things. Lowell’s political history is filled with people who lost elections or jobs and went on to do great things for the city. No one likes to lose but losing is no reason to walk away; it often opens other opportunities so yes, a “respectful second” in the long run is not necessarily a bad thing. That might be especially true now because the city faces tough financial times. The “net school spending” glitch at the end of the Lynch Administration is an early symptom of the “something for nothing” mentality that is historically popular in Lowell and often leads city government into financial crises. Unless this council makes some tough votes to raise revenue, the city’s financial condition will quickly deteriorate. That will make the job of the next city manager especially difficult, so perhaps not getting the job would not be the worst thing that could happen to an applicant.

  3. Joe says:

    Joe – In politics it’s important to take the long view of things.

    This sentence couldn’t be more correct. Maybe I am incorrect but it seems like we are slipping further and further away from this very important way of looking at things. Facebook,twitter and 24 hour news has shortened our attention spans and has turned every election into the “most important of our lifetime”. Let’s just say kevin Murphy gets the job. If he fails then you will have a successful reign by Bernie lynch sandwiched in between two career politicians. With this scenario you can almost guarantee that the next two or three city managers will all be professional management types. And if kevin Murphy is successful ? Then great. The lines between he two management styles will be blurred and in my opinion the city will be better off. I have no idea how this will all play out but I know one thing for sure. This is not the most important decision in Lowell’s history.