City Auditor Report: 2009–2014 Surveillance Spending Report. Mayor relinquishes chair to Vice Chair Leahy. Mayor finds many things troubling including that names of investigative subjects were blacked out on original invoices. This should be investigated. Says the city should have a list of people who were followed. Also dismayed that invoices for more than $42K in surveillance spending could not be found. It’s embarrassing, incomprehensible and doesn’t smell right. Also no description of surveillance $31K in spending in 2010. Says every dollar of tax payer money should be fully documented and accounted for. This reeks of a cover up. We don’t know who was followed or why. We have large invoices that we can’t figure out what the money was spent on and why. We have to account for all other spending and we need to get to the bottom of this. I understand worker’s comp but this should have been detailed. I’m receiving emails that we’re hiring private investigators like the library assistant’s mother to zoom into people’s windows. I want a full list of people who were probed into by investigators over the past six years. I also want to know who blacked out the invoices. We might have to call in the AGs office.
Manager Murphy has requested law dept to provide this all to you but it has to be done in Executive Session because of privacy laws. I’ll continue to look at missing invoices. I’m transparent and there will never be any cover up on my watch.
Mayor says once the case is settled its public information.
City Solicitor says any discussions in Executive Sessions even if case is closed must be allowed by the council before being released. As for workers comp records, there is privacy and medical reasons why that can’t be released.
Mayor says if it’s tax payer money, people should know who was followed and why.
Solicitor says there are policies and procedures that have long been in place and we’ve followed them.
Councilor Kennedy asks if Law Dept clears all surveillance. Solicitor says no, only worker’s comp case investigations go through Law Dept. It used to be that a member of the law dept did surveillance in house but then it was outsourced. Other surveillance involving other law enforcement agencies were not directed by law dept. Solicitor says other cases would go mostly through manager’s office in consultation with law enforcement agencies. Two were for building dept and public works dept. Solicitor explains there had to be some basis for the surveillance and eventually the law dept and human resources would be brought in. There were several instances where employees were terminated as result of surveillance. Kennedy says he’s concerned with FY10 because of big jump in expenditures in that FY but a majority of it has no explanation of what it was spent on. Solicitor says she suspects it was part of an ongoing investigation into the building department that ultimately resulted in criminal charges where the investigation had to be kept confidential.
Mayor Elliott says Kennedy asked some of the questions he has. He asks how can an invoice with no purpose stated be approved for payment by the city. Auditor explains that no invoices from 2009 can be found it’s not just ones related to surveillance. They were stored in the attic and the entire box can’t be located. Solicitor says workers comp investigations are documented. Says there were other investigations conducted such as with DPW and Building Dept. Explains they involved law enforcement agencies such as FBI or Inspector General’s Office. (Unclear why city was paying for surveillance by private investigators when other law enforcement was involved).
Mayor Elliott moves to continue discussion in Executive Session.
Public Hearing on new Water Bill Process. Basically, city can only reach back 3 years to recover money but also someone aggrieved by unreasonably high estimated bills still has the right to appeal before a board of 3 people who may waive, reduce or uphold the bill. Ordinance passes unanimously.
Manager response to motions. Councilor Kennedy asks for a report on the number of parking meters lost and revenue lost from switch to two way traffic in downtown.
Councilor Belanger responds to report on the number of newcomers in Lowell schools. He says he finds the report “frightening.” Says we’re expecting 4000 newcomers who don’t speak English to come into the Lowell public schools this year and that it will cost $6000 per student over and above the cost of educating “an everyday student.” Says we’re only reimbursed $178 from the state towards the $6000 cost. This is a serious burden on our school department and I foresee the schools coming to us for more money and I’m not going to put this on the tax payers of Lowell. Someone owes us money. Again, 4000 newcomers who do not speak English. Do we go to Congresswoman Tsongas, to the state delegation? Manager Murphy says Chapter 70 funding compensates us for these students and so if we get an additional 250 students that should be reflected in the chapter 70 funding. Belanger: Have they been updating the funds in prior years based on this. Manager: We received more than $5 million in chapter 70 funding last year. It’s always a struggle in the legislature because the formula really favors inner cities that receive the newcomer students so I’ll just talk to the delegation and ask them to keep an eye on this. Belanger: This report makes no mention of that so I’ll follow up with a discussion with the superintendent. That’s great if the state will reimburse us for this but it has to come from somewhere. Mayor: Says the cost of ELL is significant even though it does come through the state and the legislature should take a look at it. Councilor Milinazzo: Moves to refer this to the joint school committee city council education subcommittee.
Councilor Leahy asks about Enel compliance with flashboard agreement. Manager says it’s a Federal regulation but that the city engineer has investigated the placement of the flashboard pins but the city has no oversight over this. Everyone acknowledges the neighborhood groups in the vicinity aren’t happy about this due to flooding but because Enel has a Federal license, the city has no authority to hold the company accountable.
Councilor Leahy moves to suspend the rules to bring up some issues that arose over this past weekend on public safety. Referring to shooting incidents (car on Connector; guy on Powell St). Says we have to do a campaign to get guns off the street. We’re turning a page in the city. We used to say it was just between the bad guys but now people are very nervous about this. We have to give the police the resources they need even if we have to make cuts elsewhere. Manager: I’m meeting with the Superintendent tomorrow. It’s long overdue that we have an update on the promises made in our last Executive Session. Councilor Belanger says the council committed more funds to this last year but we haven’t got the results we wanted. Things are getting worse out there and it’s got to stop. We have to hear from the chief and get an explanation. Councilor Mercier says what’s going on now is frightening. We need a follow up about promises made during the executive session. I know the police aren’t mind readers but I’ve never in the history of my life heard of so many gunshots throughout the city. We’ve done everything we could do as a council. I don’t know if attorneys are watering down the charges before they get before judges. It’s frightening. It’s happening all over.
Mayor Elliott begins to give a report on the finance subcommittee meeting of August 19, saying “if there are no objections I’ll give the report from here.” Councilor Martin says “I object” so Leahy takes the chair. Mayor proceeds with report from the floor. Auditor reported that former city treasurer had failed to borrow several million in funds for ongoing projects. There were deficits in various funds due to this. Consequently, there will be a negative free cash figure until the city can borrow the money on September 12 at which time there will be a large surplus of free cash. Also discussed was the operating deficit at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Regarding that, the manager will try to renegotiate portions of the management contract.
Councilor Martin says he appreciates the remedial measures by Mr. Healy and Baldwin but he doesn’t think the meeting was properly called, that it was called in violation of our rules and that’s so the council and the public has notice of what we will discuss. I saw the notice of this meeting; it was vague; I thought it was a mistake. I now think the notice was intentionally vague and that’s because the chairman knew they were not properly done without first going to the council. When I confronted the mayor about this he went to the newspaper and told some lies about what I said and I don’t appreciate that. It’s troubling to me that the person responsible for enforcing the rules (the mayor) violated those rules. Also would like in the future that information conveyed to the mayor be forwarded to all councilors which wasn’t done in this case. All matters that are to go to subcommittees must first come to the council. There was no emergency. It’s important that the entire council learn about something because that’s how the public learns about it.
Councilor Kennedy says to the Auditor that at the next meeting we’ll be two months into the fiscal year. I’ve asked for a bi-weekly report on how we’re doing. Auditor says she’ll send it out.
Mayor Elliott says he conducts business in an open forum. I’m not going to get bogged down in Robert’s Rules. We talked about closing the books for FY14 and we’re going to close that with a deficit because of this. It’s more important to me that we get things done rather than be nitpicky about things.
Councilor Mercier says earlier in this meeting Leahy moved to suspend the rules the mayor could have said it wasn’t on the agenda but he allowed it. Then you made a motion under suspension. That’s a double violation of the rules. I could have objected to it but I thought it was a good motion. Councilor Martin could have objected to that but he didn’t. Maybe there’s a meeting that shouldn’t be called for; well stay home. I keep quiet about the rules violations because I want the people to hear about it whether we’re in violation of the rules or not.
Councilor Martin: If the purpose of the meeting was to keep the public informed the purpose of the meeting should have been published ahead of time. I didn’t know about the purpose of the meeting until an hour beforehand.
Mayor Elliott: Councilor Martin just wants to slough off the importance of that meeting and get into a personality issue because he has a problem with me. That’s sad. We’re elected to do a job. The bottom line is there was a problem and I brought it forward. I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and wait for Councilor Martin to be ready.
By Councilor Samaras for a report on panhandling ordinance and its enforcement. Samaras says there’s been a spike in panhandling in the city. Has seen and heard about many instances of aggressive panhandling. Wants a review of our ordinance in light of most recent court rulings on this subject. If people want to give to panhandlers there are many organizations they can donate to instead that provide assistance. If we’re going to try to sell the city, this doesn’t help. Panhandlers have rights but so do the people they confront. They have a right to feel safe. Maybe five new police officers aren’t enough; maybe we need ten. If we have to do that little extra, please advise.
Councilor Belanger agrees. Says panhandling is far beyond nuisance levels. We passed an ordinance and then the SJC changed its rules. What about the rights of tourists, citizens, etc. Mayor interrupts on behalf of the city solicitor who interjects that they city has a case pending against it on this topic. Suggests this be referred to the executive session that’s already been scheduled. Once the ordinance was challenged then everything was put on hold. Belanger says all we’re looking for is a tool to move these people along and stops them from being nuisances.
Councilor Leahy says all we hear of is the aggressive behavior that everyone is tired of. It’s getting worse again.
Councilor Belanger says this is a result of our social services in the city. We’re the only one in the region doing anything to address homelessness. We have the homeless shelter; we have the group home; we have the day shelters. This is what we get for hosting these places. This is where the region is flocking to and this problem is growing. Within the scope of the law we have to come up with the harshest position possible.
Councilor Mercier says she’s received calls from people who used to enjoy sitting on benches downtown but because of the obnoxious thug that gathers there the bench is gone. Isn’t that a shame. That’s what is happening to society. The good people are being prisoners because of those that are viscious, obnoxious and loud. It’s frustrating that society is going this way. Why aren’t the police enforcing the do not loiter ordinance. We’ve got to find a way to circumvent the laws we can’t touch because of the American Civil Liberty Union. We can’t protect our property anymore. If someone comes into your house you have to run away. We have to take everything away from the good people because the bad people have rights.
Mayor Elliott says we do need a little more enforcement. They’re getting pretty brazen.
Motion by Councilor Samaras request review of rules regarding use of bikes and skateboards on sidewalks. Says on his way to the meeting an 11 year old on a bike cut in front of him just as the light changed. At the next light, two pedestrians almost got hit my two kids on bikes riding recklessly. If pedestrians aren’t paying attention they’re likely to get hit and hurt. Says Kerouac Park and other monuments are being damaged by rollerblading (Ed. Note: I think he means skateboarders).
Councilor Belanger concurs that it’s a problem. Says the contractor renovating his business was grazed by bikers zooming past. Says there are four skateboard parks in the city. They should use them. Says he’s not aware of a single sign that says no bikes or skateboards on sidewalks. It’s a problem; kids are showing off.
Councilor Leahy asks about conversion to two way traffic and whether there are extra police there. Says new traffic pattern plus bikes and skateboards make this a very bad time.
Manager Murphy says he walked through downtown and noted many things like this (and the use of foul language) and will address it with the police chief.
Motion by Councilor Samaras on Historic Board. Samaras acknowledges the good work of the Historic Board but wants City Manager to meet with Historic Board and business leaders about economic development. Some business leaders shy away from speaking on this publicly but they are aggrieved what might appear to be “arbitrary and capricious” rulings by the Historic Board. He wants to ensure good communication between Historic Board and business people about what each is trying to accomplish. These are issues that should be resolvable.
Councilor Milinazzo says he supports this motion. Gives an example of Sweet Lydia’s putting a sidewalk sign on Merrimack street and business increased by 15%. Within two days, the administrator of the Historic Board ordered it to be removed. He gives examples of the Historic Board seeming to ignore other violations. He thinks it’s important to improve communication between the Board and businesses.
Councilor Belanger agrees with the motion. Says businesses resent being held to a very high standard when neighboring buildings are allowed to fall into severe neglect. Says when the guidelines become a strain on business when things are bad enough this has to be looked at. There should be exceptions to every rule. Cites a building on Market Street that Kazanjian wants to develop but the “numbers don’t work” if he has to comply with the historic board regulations. Next mentions two way traffic. Says it’s going great except for Shattuck Street which has barrels for a divider. Someone said historic board has forbidden painting a yellow line on cobblestoned streets. Reiterates the need to have exceptions to every rule. Says some times the guidelines are impediments to economic development.
Councilor Mercier says she’s not for two way on Shattuck Street. She’s not for it because it’s so narrow.
Councilor Rourke says it’s an outstanding motion. Has heard frustration from downtown businesses. Would like the city manager to get involved to seek compromise.
Councilor Samaras asks to have DPD people talk more to downtown businesses informally because some of those making complaints don’t want to do so publicly because they do support the historic district in general.
Councilor Kennedy says since 1978 the National Park has had a major influence on the environment downtown. To the extent we can have a conversation between the preservationists and those interested in developing downtown it can only help.
Motion by Councilor Mercier regarding crossing of Rogers Street near Rogers Hall. She asks that Councilor Belanger’s motion on the same topic be taken up simultaneously. Mercier is concerned for safety of people in the neighborhood who try to cross Rogers Street which is a very dangerous undertaking. She’d like a pedestrian activated crossing light but understands how expensive that is. Instead she’d like better signage. Makes suggestions about the verbiage and placement of signs. Councilor Belanger recounts coming out of his residence in that location and seeing an elderly man who had been struck by a car. Councilor Leahy says he checked out area and makes some recommendations for painting methods of crosswalk. Suggests charging the insurance company of the driver who strikes a pedestrian pay for crossing lights.
Motion by Councilor Kennedy asking city council to endorse vocational high school’s proposed solution to the “one man one vote” issue (that board would use a weighted vote system). Based on request of Law Department, they refer this motion to executive session.
Councilor Belanger requests city explore taking 43 Market Street by eminent domain (it’s a dilapidated building that’s been that way for many years). Says owner is unrealistic in his asking price. Would like to know what the city can do to get this man to sell his building or to do something with it. Manager Murphy sent council and email update earlier in the day regarding possible sale. Says city will stay on top of it.
Councilor Belanger would like an update of alleged noncompliance of methadone clinic. Says business owners in the area are up in arms about it. Says he’s seen video of a person urinating in the bushes and heard about people walking in the street. Asks manager to investigate. Manager Murphy says two weeks ago he had building department monitor the activities and confirmed that it was going on. Ten days ago had representative deliver a notice to owner that it was a nuisance and a public safety issue requiring them to abate the problems. They didn’t do that so yesterday he had a notice hand delivered saying they had 48 hours to correct the problems or the city would void their certificate of occupancy. Councilor Rourke asks about an agreement between the company and the LRTA for bus service. Councilor Leahy had similar motion.
Council votes to go into Executive Session regarding pending litigation. Public portion of meeting ends.