Lowell Week in Review: July 27, 2014

Lowell Folk Festival

It’s the last weekend in July so the Lowell Folk Festival is upon us.  Walking around downtown yesterday afternoon was a lot of fun.  It wasn’t the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen but it was large enough to prove that the Festival continues to be very popular.  I saw more Lowell people than in past years which is a good thing.  With the Boston Arts Weekend pretty well established on this same weekend each year, I think the Lowell Folk Festival has lost some of its suburban Boston audience and so to continue thriving it should become more Lowell-centric.  When confronted with the possibility of significant changes to some of its fundamental underpinnings, Festival supporters might argue “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I’m not saying the Festival is broken; but after 28 years of rapid changes in society, it would be wise in the aftermath of this Festival to start discussing possible changes in the Festival model.

Crowd at Lowell Folk Festival

Each year it seems that one Festival act creates a real buzz.  This year, that act was “Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka’s San Francisco Taiko Dojo”, a group of Japanese taiko drummers who brought a fury of West Coast energy to Boarding House Park yesterday afternoon.  The drummers are back at Boarding House Park today at 2 pm.  Here’s the full schedule of today’s performances.

 State Election Activity

Campaigning at the Folk Festival is tricky.  I say “passive” campaigning is OK but “active” campaigning is not.  By passive campaigning, I mean walking around with a candidate button or t-shirt and talking with people who initiate a discussion about the candidate.  For candidates themselves, walking around with local supporters who make introductions to friends they encounter is also OK.  By active campaigning I mean carrying signs or passing out literature.  Neither of those activities is advised or allowed.  There are also a couple of designated “free speech” zones, one in front of City Hall, where candidates and campaigns can set up tables and provide information.

At the City Hall free speech zone yesterday, I encountered Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor and local state representative Ratha Paul Yem.  There was also a table staffed by volunteers from the “Ready for Hillary” movement (which supports Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President).  Around the festival, I spotted Tom Conroy, a candidate for state treasurer and Rady Mom and Dave Ouellette, both candidates for state representative.  I’m assuming there were other candidates there; I just didn’t see them.

Free Speech Zone at Folk Festival

State Representative Debate

The KhmerPost USA, the Lowell-published Cambodian language newspaper that circulates in the city and in other communities with significant Southeast Asian populations down the East Coast, will host a debate among the Democratic candidates for the 18th Middlesex District State Representative seat on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 7:00 pm.  The debate will be held at the studios of Lowell Telecommunications Corporation and will be televised live on Lowell cable TV.  More details about the debate will be forthcoming.

 Charter Change

In his Saturday Chat yesterday (not yet online), Kendall Wallace urged readers to consider a change to Lowell’s City Charter from the current nine elected at large councilors to an eleven member council that would mix at large and district councilors.  The main reason he cites for a change is the current disproportionate representation on the council afforded Belvidere.  I’ve always been cool to a change in the method of electing councilors but now I think the idea is worth studying.

Ironically, it’s the city council’s lawsuit that challenges the method of electing representatives to the Greater Lowell Vocational High School that’s caused me to reconsider my position.  In that lawsuit, the council argues that the three towns in the district (Dracut, Tyngsborough and Dunstable) have an amount of power on the board out of proportion to the number of voters they have relative to the number of voters from Lowell.  It’s not an exact comparison because everyone in Lowell can vote equally for councilors, however, the fact is that everyone doesn’t vote.  Everyone eligible doesn’t register, either.  The problem isn’t that so many councilors live in Belvidere it’s that so many voters do.  Wherever a councilor resides, he or she will be predictably inclined to reflect the interests and the attitudes of the people who vote.  In Lowell, an overwhelming number of the people who do vote in city elections are clustered in one neighborhood – Belvidere.  Consequently, policies begin skewing towards satisfying those who live in that one neighborhood and not necessarily all residents of the city.  In the coming weeks, I’ll post some statistics and trends that illustrate my point.

New Polling Places

The city’s Election Commission announced this week that eleven of the twenty polling places used in the last election will be relocated.  On Friday I wrote a blog post listing the old and new polling places precinct-by-precinct so I won’t repeat that information here.  The main reason the changes were made was because some of the former polling places were in social clubs that served liquor which violates state law.  This change had to be made (and should have been done long ago) but with the state primary election just six weeks from this Tuesday (the election is September 9) there’s not a lot of time to get the word out so please do what you can to share this news.

New City Hires

Congratulations to Mike McGovern and Kevin Coughlin for being hired by City Manager Kevin Murphy as assistant city manager and assistant DPD director.  I’ve known both Mike and Kevin for nearly two decades and expect them to be great assets to the city.  A city manager or any executive should be able to hire people of his own choosing for top assistant positions.  As former Patriot coach Bill Parcels once famously said, “If you want me to cook the meal, you have to let me buy the groceries.”  I think it proper that councilors and the mainstream media give deference to a city manager’s hiring of top staff.  However, I suspect that had another city manager – say Bernie Lynch – hired the exact same individuals in the exact same positions, there would be calls from some to convene a grand jury.

New Students

The issue of the cost of young people from other countries enrolling in the Lowell public schools (which came up on a motion by Mayor Rodney Elliott at Tuesday’s Council meeting) is a tricky one.  Certainly it is far more expensive to educate a 16 year old who arrives in the U.S. as a refugee from a war-torn country with no prior formal education than it is to educate someone with an age appropriate level of education and a mastery of the English language.  If the Federal government is designating Lowell as a resettlement site for such refugees, it’s completely appropriate for local political leaders to lobby the Federal government for additional funds to offset the financial impact of refugee students on the local public schools.  That’s what city leaders did back in the late 1980s when the schools were overwhelmed with an average of 50 new students each week coming from refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines.  Back then, city lobbying yielded more than $500,000 in “refugee impact funds” for the Lowell Public Schools thanks to a bill pushed through Congress by then Senator Edward Kennedy.  Hopefully something similar will happen now.

But what if additional funds aren’t forthcoming?  What are we to do?  Are we to built a wall around the city?  Are we to say “no more newcomers to Lowell”?  Some longtime Lowell residents felt that way about the Cambodian refugees coming to Lowell back in 1987; some even said it publicly.  But more reasonable city leaders, both elected and otherwise, tamped down such talk and the newcomers quickly became part of the fabric of the Lowell community.  That was on display this week with the sincere and moving presentation at the start of this week’s city council meeting that recognized how the entire city pulled together in the aftermath of the deadly fire on Branch Street, a tragedy that struck the Cambodian community especially hard.  Today, 25 years after their arrival as refugees, Cambodians are just as much a part of Lowell’s community as are the members of every ethnic group that’s come before them and their presence makes Lowell a better place.  Yet if the “keep them out” mentality had prevailed in 1987, our Cambodian neighbors either wouldn’t be here or would have a more negative relationship with the community.

Why has this issue arisen now?  It’s not like immigrants and refugees just started arriving in Lowell.  That was evident at this year’s Lowell High graduation ceremony which featured Air Force JROTC cadets carrying into the Tsongas Center the flags of all the nations of birth of graduating seniors.  Included were the flags of Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Cote D’Ivore, China, Columbia, Cape Verde, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Guinea, Honduras, India, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Cambodia, Laos, Liberia, Burma, Mexico, Nigeria, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.  A full 18% of the graduating seniors in the class of 2014 were born in countries other than the United States.

While there is legitimate concern about the financial impact on the schools by a number of refugee families who are already bound for Lowell from the Congo I suspect that the media-generated hysteria about unaccompanied minors from Central America coming across the US-Mexican border seems to be a part of it.  Councilor Belanger certainly alluded to that in his remarks on Tuesday night

He was also emphatic that the cost of educating refugee students “should not be on the backs of the Lowell taxpayers” which is a little bit misleading.  Since the state legislature passed ed reform back in 1993, 90% of the cost of the Lowell public schools is paid by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The contribution from city tax funds is less than it was back then and is an amount mandated by state law.  Since ed reform, councils have struggled to even meet that minimum funding.  There was a large outlay in this year’s city budget for the schools, but that was simply making up for past shortfalls in violation of state law. To suggest that this council will spend one penny more than is absolutely mandated by state law on the public schools is deceptive because it will not.  Sure the taxpayers of Lowell are also taxpayers of Massachusetts, but financing the cost of Lowell’s public schools is a burden spread across the state and not “on the backs of Lowell taxpayers.”

Again, while I’m all for lobbying for more money from the state and Feds for the Lowell public schools, public figures, both elected and otherwise, should employ such rhetoric with caution because listeners don’t always catch nuance in public statements.  This was illustrated to me about ten years ago when a daily occurrence on morning talk radio was rants about “illegals.”  Later on a day I had appeared as a guest on the radio, I was at a local retail establishment when the clerk, a women who I vaguely recognized from church, said

I heard you on the radio this morning.  I just love listening to [the host].  He’s right that we have to do something about these illegals.  Just the other day I was in line at the grocery store and everyone in front of me spoke Spanish.  It was terrible.

That kind of ugliness is not new to Lowell.  I have a deed for property on Fairmount Street from 1881 that includes as a condition of sale that “the said premises are being deeded under the express condition that the land shall never be deed or conveyed to any person born in Ireland.”

As I get ready to leave for today’s offerings at the Lowell Folk Festival, I’m reminded that every group that has come to the city since its founding has been looked upon with disdain by some who came before, but with the help of more empathetic residents, the newcomers remained, persevered, and made the city a better place.  As we lobby for additional funding for the cost of educating incoming refugees, we should always remember that.

One Response to Lowell Week in Review: July 27, 2014

  1. LowellMillGal says:

    Speaking as someone who likes professional government, I would like my planning director to have, let’s say, some planning experience and maybe a degree in planning. I am a little crazy like that. I’m very disappointed in the hack hires and the fact that the Manager didn’t even conduct interviews.