Lowell City Council Meeting: March 29, 2016

Response to Council Motions: Lisa DeMeo explains process of “accepting” a street by the city. It’s a complicated process. They expect seven streets to be accepted this year.

Manager Murphy explains the FY17 budget handout that was distributed to the council. The final budget proposal will be officially presented to the council on May 17. Councilor Milinazzo asks when Manager Murphy expects the legislature to have a budget. Murphy responded mid to late May. Milinazzo points out that 63% of the city budget comes from state funds; only 37% of what the city spends is raised locally.  When asked about the size of the school department deficit, Murphy says the amount proposed for the school department is $1 mil more than is required to provide to the schools and that the school department should “learn to live within its means, just like we do.”

Report of Flood Subcommittee from Rita Mercier – There’s a dispute among concerned parties (Pawtucketville residents, FERC, Enel, etc.) about the water level of the Merrimack River that causes Clay Pit Brook (a tributary) to flood. FERC has a public comment period that expires in early April, so the council has asked Manager Murphy to write to FERC with certain requests about the water level of the Pawtucket Dam that causes flooding of tributaries.

Petition by Residents to Speak re Proposed Visit of Hun Manet (23 people registered to speak). The first speaker condemns Hun Sen (Hun Manet’s father and the ruler of Cambodia) and urges the council not to receive him at City Hall, to much applause from the several hundred people in the crowd.

The next speaker says he fully supports the sister-city relationship and urges the council to meet with the visitor. (Throughout this gentleman’s remarks, which are in Khmer but are being translated, but the crowd is booing and shouting him down). Mayor Kennedy interrupts and chastises the hecklers. The speaker points out all the commonality of the Cambodian people and urges them to come together and act in a unified way.

The next speaker talks about the symbolism of the statute the Hun Sen government is presenting to Lowell as a gift is a unifying symbol and should not be made a political issue. He points out that the future speaker is a candidate for state representative who is politicizing this issue for his own benefit. He points out that the gift was motivated by the visit of Rodney Elliot when he was Mayor of Lowell to Cambodia when he signed a sister city agreement between Lowell and Phnom Phen. He says many people in Lowell support this and if the city rejects it, they will be deeply offended. He says that the businessmen who will accompany Hun Manet who are looking for trade and business opportunities in the United States and in Lowell in particular. He cites how American presidents have normalized relationships with Cuba, Vietnam, and China. Cambodia wishes to normalize relations in the same way.

The speakers continue, the majority opposing the visit. Several speak in Khmer with occasional translation into English. The crowd understands what is being said; the councilors I suspect not. Passions are clearly running very high. Mayor Kennedy begins invoking the 5-minute rule for speakers. It appears that several decades of accumulated grievances against Hun Sen have found an outlet before the city council tonight.

Now former City Councilor Rithy Uong speaks. He says he won’t say much because he will let the crowd and their signs speak for the community. He says that since the Cambodian people have come to Lowell, they have achieved great success. He says the Cambodian community of Lowell doesn’t need any gifts from the current government of Cambodia. He then mentions the abuses practiced by that government. He suggests the visit is just a pretense to promote business relations between Lowell and Cambodia but he says it is actually an attempt to strengthen and promote the Communists in Lowell. He says Lowell does not need this “blood money” from “land grabbers” from Cambodia.

Former Councilor Vesna Nuon speaks next. He reminds councilors that both Niki Tsongas and Elizabeth Warren have been critical of the current Cambodian government. He says it’s OK with him if Hun Manet visits Lowell, but the city should not honor him or welcome him to City Hall. He says if the statue arrives in Lowell, the community should pay for it.

One speaker criticizes Rady Mom for having previously met with Hun Sen and for CMAA for staying neutral on this issue. Speaker compares Hun Manet to a Trojan Horse coming into Lowell. He says people here will be at risk because the regime will have “so many spies here in Lowell.” He says those who welcome Hun Manet “are criminals, too.”

Final speaker has a petition signed by 500 Lowell residents. She alleges Hun Sen has a long record of human rights violation, corruption, persecution of opponents, and many other wrong doings. She also alleges that Hun Manet has as an objective of his visit to build up support for the regime among young people living outside of Cambodia. She says that many people here in Lowell fear Hun Sen and believe the statue will represent oppression.

Another speaker, a business owner who has been in Lowell for more than 28 years, expresses his gratitude to the United States for welcoming him and teaching him about real democracy. He says the CPP (Hun Sen’s party) represents the interests of Vietnam, not the interests of Cambodia.

End of speakers.

Councilor Elliott is the first to speak. He explains that when he visited Cambodia, he was unaware of the politics there, but he has since learned more about it. He talks of how Lowell and the Cambodians who came here learned much from each other. He says we continue to work together and by respecting each other. He recalls the experience of visiting ten women unjustly imprisoned in Cambodia. He and Councilor Mercier spoke out about the injustice. That was met with an irate letter from the Cambodian Secretary of State. He contacted US officials and the women were released several weeks later. He says he stands with the members of the community. He also says while in Cambodia he specifically refused the offer of the statue.

Councilor Mercier speaks next. She says “this is what it is all about – freedom of speech.” She believes in majority rule and says the majority clearly opposes this visit. She explains she went to Cambodia to learn more about the culture and history of Cambodian people in Lowell. She closes by saying she will stand with the people and will not honor Hun Manet.

Councilor Milinazzo says the “powerful message tonight will stay with me for the rest of my life.” He says he will stand with them. Asks the mayor to explore how to rescind the invitation.

Councilor Leary says he will support rescinding the invitation. He adds that we do tolerate other opinions and says everyone should respect those who were in the minority who spoke in favor of the visit.

Councilor Samaras says tonight was an example of how sometimes people who are new to the country have a better appreciation of democracy than some who were born in this country. Mentions that he has visited Cambodia and learned much from his visit. Says that the job of councilors is to be the servants of the people. He says there were two points of view expressed tonight but he thinks we should respect the wishes of the majority and not allow the official visit to go forward.

Councilor Leahy thanks people for coming and says he supports them. Councilor Rourke says the same.

Mayor Kennedy, speaking from the chair, says he came into the office of mayor not knowing much about the politics of Cambodia or conditions there, but he’s learning fast. He says five weeks ago, he had a visit from the honorary Counsel General who said Hun Manet was visiting Lowell along with the Cambodian Ambassador to Lowell and the Cambodian Secretary of State and about 40 others. He says that the city did not ask for the visit, did not ask for the statue. Says the statue is supposed to arrive sometime next week. The Counsel General asked that the statue be placed in front of City Hall. After speaking with the city manager, we decided it would be best placed in Pawtucketville along the riverbank where the Southeast Asian Water Festival takes place. The Cambodian delegation is supposed to come to City Hall on Saturday morning to meet with the dignitaries. He says doing that on a Saturday was not his first choice of how to spend a Saturday, but he felt it was his responsibility as mayor to meet with them. He feels it is still his responsibility to meet with them. However, if there is a unanimous vote of the city council that he not meet with the delegation, he will respect that vote.

Councilor Belanger says he supports the mayor’s initial decision, but that we have since learned a lot about Cambodian politics. He says that based on what was said tonight, we should denounce the visit and the gift. He makes a motion to do that.

Motion passes 8 to 0 with Mayor Kennedy abstaining. Mayor Kennedy says “So, we won’t be greeting the general.”

Takes a 3 minute recess.

Meeting resumes.

Motion by Councilor Mercier to place a monument to Medal of Honor recipient David McNerney at the corner of Jackson and Canal Streets. Referred to the Board of Parks for their consideration.

Motion by Councilor Samaras for report on steps that have been taken to implement the “College Town” initiative.

Motion by Councilor Milinazzo requesting a report on a certain church’s use of the Sullivan School for its Lowell campus.

Motion by Councilor Rourke to explore returning speed bumps to June Street.

Motion by Mayor Kennedy for report on how much has been spent on snow removal this year as compared to the past several years.

Council adjourns at 9:31 pm.

3 Responses to Lowell City Council Meeting: March 29, 2016

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great summary. I hope the right decision was made. Do not really understand the politics of C. Are they Comm?

  2. Synoun Kham says:

    Thank you Mr. Richard Howe for the well-written article about Cambodians in Lowell and the political development in Cambodia. Your effort understanding our suffering is commendable. The Lowell City Council denounced the visit of Cambodia dictator’s son, Hun Manet, is greatly and deeply gratified.