Lowell City Council Meeting: January 19, 2016

Firearms Policy – Manager Murphy explains that the last time this was before the council, the council asked the manager to meet with the people critical of the current firearms policy. He says they had two main objections: the first was that the requirement was more stringent than in other towns. He said that’s not the case for having a gun in your home or for sporting purposes. In those cases, Lowell has the same requirements. However, in an “unrestricted license to carry,” Lowell imposes more stringent requirements than do neighboring towns. Setting the policy is solely up to the local police chief. Our chief believes that an advanced firearms safety course be required. If an applicant has a financial hardship, the Lowell policy allows a waiver based on an equivalent course or experience that satisfies the same requirement. Now, for the first time in 30 years, Lowell has given applicants a pathway to obtain an unlimited license to carry. This is a much more permissive policy than Springfield, Boston, and most other large cities in Massachusetts. Murphy understands that this is a controversial issue. He reminds councilors that this is solely up to the police chief; that the council has no say on it. But he still is bringing before the council for informational purposes. He believes this policy is in the best interests of all the residents of Lowell.

There are six people registered to speak. First is Jean Peoples of Burgess St. She asks why her license to carry is restricted just because she lives in Lowell. She says Massachusetts state law allows it. She says the Lowell policy violates her Constitutional rights. She complains that rather than weakening the rules, Lowell has made them stricter. Next speaker is Jeffrey Pearson of 3 Washington Parkway. He says “we already have a pathway to this and it’s set out in state law.” Claims the reason for a restriction has to be proven by the licensing authority. Says the city council “owns” this policy and the council has the right to dismiss this policy if it violates the law. “We have heard from several councilors that this is a complex law and we don’t understand it.” That is unacceptable after two years of talking about this. He keeps calling the police chief “Mr. Taylor” while criticizing him for not weakening the policy. Says this policy keeps getting worse. Says this policy violates “settled law.” Accuses the council of “passing this off to people who have no authority to settle it.” Next speaker is Dan Gannon of 110 Freda Lane. Starts by “correcting” the city manager by saying that when he is on his way to a shooting range he can carry his gun concealed. Says “three council meetings later,” a community meeting with Rourke and Kennedy at Dunkin Donuts “before the election.” Says Rourke said he “didn’t like the letters of recommendation” part of the policy. That needs to be removed from the policy. This policy does not follow state law. Says legislators have told him that no additional requirements can be imposed. Says according to something he found on the internet today, the chief has only 40 days to make a decision whereas it now takes six months to get even a restrictive license. Says he “will never write an essay to exercise my rights as an American citizen.” He says there’s always a lot of talk about safety but who can guarantee my safety? No one? Then I should have the right to carry a firearm. Next is Randy Bretton of 182 Trotting Park Road. Has lived in Lowell for 18 years. Has an unrestricted license. Is a certified firearms license. Says he came here a year ago to “point out the faults with and the overreaching nature” of the Lowell policy. After that, they did meet. Says the chief did layout a “pathway” that required more training. He says he’s all in favor of more training but says Massachusetts law forbids the licensing authority from requiring more training. He says that whoever designated the courses for this policy “was grossly negligent.” Goes through the courses, saying they are either not offered often enough or are too expensive. Criticizes NRA courses for not teaching anything about de-escalation of violent situations. Criticizes the Massachusetts safety course for being too brief, suggests it is on the list because it is taught be another police officer. Says he’s not 2 miles north where they “love liberty and they trust their citizens”. Instead, he is here and is a pragmatist. Recommends the Lowell police should develop its own training program for free for Lowell residents. Otherwise, this is nothing but an obstacle to allowing us to carry firearms. Offers to teach the course for free. All he asks in return is that once it is up and running that police officers take over running it. Next speaker is Shawn Clark of 44 Fifth Ave. He objects to the policy that the city of Lowell has forced on the citizens of Lowell for three decades. He says Lowell is a dangerous place to live and that “we, and only we, are responsible for our own protection.” Says the city is on pace to have more than double the amount of crimes as last year. Says of all those crimes, only one was committed in Belvidere. He says the rest of the citizens of Lowell have to deal with crime “right outside their doors.”

Councilor Mercier says she was told by people in the community to not speak out about this but that’s not me. I have an opinion. She thanks Chief Taylor for all the work that went into it but she still has to ask Is this policy fair? If yes, she would support the policy. But she doesn’t think this is a fair policy. Says this is even stricter than the policy that was complained about before. She goes through the policy, saying most of it is fair, but says what is unfair is that the Chief is mandating training above and beyond what the state requires. She says this someone on a fixed income could not afford this. She’s disappointed that “we didn’t meet common ground.” It would have been just as good to leave it alone. She says the 2nd amendment says “they have the right to bear arms.” Then says there can be restrictions. These are the people here who are law-abiding. If they are told “there are too many guns” as a reason for not getting a license. “I don’t know where we’re going on this; the council can’t vote for it.” “The superintendent works for the city manager and you work for us, Mr. Manager” then criticizes the chief for not “taking advantage of” the offer to create a gun course in Lowell. Says she’s “very disappointed.” (Crowd applauds).

Councilor Leary questions the chief about some of the prior comments on availability of safety courses. Chief Taylor says he understands that some of the courses were added at the request of the second amendment group in litigation with the city. That’s who recommended these courses be included. He says several are offered within Massachusetts. The ones that are not were the ones recommended by this other group. He says local fire arm ranges have already been offering to hold these courses once the policy is implemented. Leary suggests finding ways for the city to offer these courses as a revenue making opportunity. He then thanks the chief for “being the first person in three decades to look at this.”

Councilor Samaras mentions prior military service as being a qualifier. Chief Taylor says early in the process, people were concerned about prior service in the military, the police, or having a prior unrestricted license from another community. He says this new policy allows those things to be qualifying factors. None of them were previously. Says we all value the second amendment, but we’re also charged with keeping the city safe.

Councilor Rourke asks chief about the letter of recommendation. Chief says the reasons for the letters is to help evaluate the applicant’s level of maturity and responsibility. Says that other than a court-mandated mental health incarceration, there’s no way to know who has emotional problems or mental stability issues. These letters of recommendation are an attempt to assess that. The writer of the letter can be contacted by the police for a follow up interview. He says it’s not perfect but it’s better than nothing.

Councilor Leahy thanks the people who came down. Says the chief works for the city manager, not for the councilors. He says the chief has done a lot more than anyone has done in the past. Says guns are expensive. The training may be expensive, but if you want to carry a gun in Lowell, that’s what the policy is. I’m not going to argue with him.

Councilor Belanger says “great comments on both side.” Thanks the chief for his time but he’s “shocked” to hear that this is “stricter than has been in place for the past 30 years.” He says the policy for 30 years was “you can’t carry a gun.” Now, there’s at least a pathway. I happen to agree with him. Asks the chief about the training. Chief says he’s willing to meet with “Randy” to incorporate his proposal. Councilor Belanger commends the chief for approaching this in the spirit of compromise.

Councilor Mercier asks the chief how often do you re-register a gun permit? Every six years. But the training only has to be taken once. Asks him to clarify this in the policy. He says they can do that. Taylor says “we want to do it in a reasonable manner.”

Councilor Elliott says life is changing in this country regarding violence. He likes that we’re addressing the 30 year old policy. I agree with Councilor Mercier that our understanding was this would come back with more of a compromise. That means “good, law-abiding citizens” understands the need for some restrictions, but the problem is illegal guns. I agree the speakers should have the “right to protect themselves.” Asks how many unrestricted licenses will you issue per year. Chief says there are over 6000 licenses to carry in Lowell. A couple of years ago after some shootings like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, there was a fear that it would be harder to get a gun so there was a surge in new applicants. The vast majority of those are restricted licenses. Many of them sought unrestricted licenses. Asks chief if there’s any reason he can’t put training in place that wouldn’t be so financially burdensome. Chief says he’s willing to meet. Says contrary to some of the comments, the purpose was not to make the training so onerous as to not be able to get the license. Says if there’s a way to get adequate training in a more convenient, affordable way, he’d support that.

Communication accepted and placed on file and that chief meet with Mr. Bretton as discussed.

Gas Leaks – Susan Griffin from National Grid with some other representative are present to answer questions. They have a powerpoint presentation to give. Says National Grid’s natural gas system is safe and operating normally. They respond immediately to any report of a gas leak. (Goes through the presentation, giving stats on how much older pipe has already been replaced). Councilors asking many questions about natural gas. National Grid rep is providing substantive responses to all questions. [If you’re interested in this topic, watch this portion of the meeting on the LTC website]. Some councilors focus on who is paying for gas that leaks out of pipes. It’s the rate payer. Councilors say that’s unfair because there’s no incentive for the gas company to fix things promptly. Gas company understands that concern, but rate payers pay the cost of repairing the pipe, too, so it’s a balance of maximizing safety and keeping costs down. The new pipes are a lot less likely to leak, so we prefer replacing old pipes in large batches rather than addressing every (non-safety) leak as it happens.

Vote to transfer $110,000 to the Lucy Larcom Canal lighting project. Councilor Belanger thanks the city manager and his administration for their constant efforts to improve downtown. He describes the views they have of what the canal will look like once it’s illuminated. Says it will use our canals as a destination. He’s extremely excited about it. Says it’s “not cheap” but it is fully worth the investment. Commends city manager on his “crafty” budgeting and asks him to elaborate. Manager Murphy says Lucy Larcom Park has been underutilized. Winterfest will be concentrated on Lucy Larcom Park with small food tents, fire pits, an ice bar, and illumination of the canal which will light up the ice and the trees. This will be all year long. Red, white and blue on Fourth of July, green on St. Patrick’s Day. It will make that a much nicer venture. Our ultimate goal is to illuminate all of our canals. (Winter fest will have a carousel and a giant slide on Arcand Drive, rather than the Human Dog Sled track and the big beer tent). Councilor Elliott says we’ve long talked about making better use of our canals and this seems like a great way to do it. He asks about getting permission to do this. Murphy explains that Locks and Canals Corporation and the National Park agree with this, although the railings are owned by the city. Councilor Samaras commends the city manager for making this happen. Mentions that the Lowell Heritage Partnership is seeking private and corporate contributions to help expand this. Councilor Mercier is excited by this. Recalls the city sending a group to Las Vegas to see the fountains at the Bellagio Hotel to assess whether that could work in Lowell. Says how inspirational it is to see the lights on Boston’s Zakim Bridge or even on Cross Point. This will be like that. Predicts this is the start of something big.

Vote to amend city ordinance to prohibit feeding water fowl. Councilor Belanger asks what this is about. Manager Murphy explains that an attempt to curtail the presence of Canadian geese which foul parks and playing fields with their droppings. There were other options but the manager wants to start with this. He figures if you don’t feed them, they might go elsewhere.

Council votes to reserve a parking spot at city hall for wounded veterans.

Council votes to support a resolution urging the federal government to reverse the curtailment of civil forfeitures recently imposed.

Motion by Councilors Mercier and Belanger to request home rule legislation increasing the number of signatures needed to appear on the city council ballot from 50 to 150 and to increase the number of candidates needed to have a preliminary election from 19 to 25. Says after filing the motion, she thought about the school committee. She’d like to know what they think about applying this to school committee elections. She asks that this be referred to the personnel subcommittee and that in the meantime, she asks the Mayor to bring it up with the school committee to see what they want to do.

Motion by Councilors Mercier and Elliott asking the city manager to increase the number of members on the city’s veterans’ commission. Councilor Elliott says a number of veterans have expressed interest in becoming involved. Says it might make some sense to increase the number of seats. Councilor Mercier says “it’s a matter of fairness.” “We want to give everyone who wants to be on it a chance to be on it.”

Motion by Councilors Mercier and Elliott to have Parks and Rec Department consider adopting a “volunteer to work” program in the parks for veterans. Says this should be referred to Parks and Rec Subcommittee. Elliott explains that there is housing available for veterans but it requires them to have a job. This would allow volunteering in the community to take the place of employment in qualifying for housing.

Motion for Councilor Elliott for an update on the cost and implementation of the Shot Spotter system.

Motion by Councilor Elliott to have finance subcommittee meet to discuss close out of FY15 books and the FY16 budget.

Motion by Councilor Elliott to discuss status of applicants for auditor position and to create a schedule for hiring one. Referred to Auditor Oversight committee for further discussion.

Motion by Councilors Leahy and Belanger to have city manager work with appropriate state agency to clear up state land between Hunts Falls and the water treatment plant.

Motion by Councilors Leahy and Samaras to have the school superintendent provide school protocols for student safety. Leahy says that after the issue at Lowell High last week, we would like to be updated on the procedures in place. Samaras says he’s not questioning how the school handled things but we are in a time of threats. This creates fear among students and parents. I’d like to see this go to the Safety Committee so the police chief and the school superintendent can brief everyone on the safety procedures in place. Says if people hear about preparedness, they will feel safer. Councilor Leary says it would be more appropriate to include the school committee’s student safety subcommittee.

Motion by Councilors Leahy and Samaras to get update on former Aden Furniture building on Market Street and to ask the contractor to clean up the windows. Samaras says there’s been great improvement on Market Street. Would like the city to have a conversation with the owners to clean the place up. Leahy says this just seems to be moving slow. Says adjacent businesses do a good job but this place is a mess. Councilor Belanger says he made a motion on this over a year ago, 43 Market Street. Says there should be liens attached to this for failure to uphold minimum maintenance. Says this is going before the Zoning Board later this month. Says it looks like someone is finally going to do something about this building.

Motion by Councilor Samaras to review snow removal to all pedestrian access to the train station. Says this past storm which was a small one, left the place unsuitable for pedestrians. Says with a big storm coming, would like the city to take a look at this. Says we ask people to live downtown and take the train so we have to do a better job of keeping the walking route to the train station walkable.

Motion by Councilor Milinazzo (who is not present tonight) to have a more appropriate sign posted on Thorndike-Dutton Street which was previously renamed the Sampson Connector. (Councilor Mercier presents motion).

Motion by Mayor Kennedy (who relinquishes the chair to Vice Chair Rourke) request council add a section to the agenda called Announcements.

Motion by Mayor Kennedy to consider salary adjustments for councilors and school committee. Kennedy points out that council can’t raise its own salary. Increase would be for future councils. He didn’t intend to file this now but did in response to earlier motion to change the rules for electing people. Increasing the number of signatures needed makes it harder as does a ballot with 25 names on it. Says our current process has been there for decades. It’s a democratic process. In recent years, we’ve had a lack of interest in elections. It’s not just in Lowell with council or school committee, it’s in many communities. And there’s less voter participation. Some communities don’t even have enough people willing to run to full all elected positons. I think it’s time to look at raising the salary as a way of attracting more people to run. Asks that this motion be referred to the subcommittee on personnel to discuss and report back to the full city council within four months. Councilor Mercier responds that her motion was to save the taxpayers some money not to make it confusing for voters by adding more names. Recalls that doubling the salary from $7500 to $15000 was expected to draw more candidates but it did not. Says we aren’t sitting here for the money. Kennedy understands that no one serves for the money. Says there was a time when the council salary of $4000 was more than the salary of a police officer. There were many good candidates then. The fringe people are running because there’s a lack of good-quality candidates. Councilor Elliott says he is concerned with the implications of the intent to raise council salaries. We serve because we want to make a difference. He is not going to support the motion because we have enough financial issues we’re dealing with. I don’t think this will effectuate the change desired. If you want more people to run and to vote, we should go to ward representation. Running city-wide is too big a task. Councilor Leahy says this deserves discussion as does the earlier motions. Passes six yes, two no, one absent.

Motion by Mayor Kennedy to request report on a trailer home constructed at 902 Varnum Ave.

Council adjourns at 9:37 p.m.