Due to a commitment on Tuesday night, I was unable to watch the live telecast of the Lowell City Council meeting. I watched on on-demand video replay tonight and took the following notes, however, the meeting was more than three hours long so I only covered half of it tonight.
COMMUNICATIONS FROM CITY MANAGER
A) Plain-Tanner St. Corridor Redevelopment Plans. Councilor Mercier asks about the Lowell Car Wash and how it will be affected. DPD’s Joe Giniewicz explains there will be two phases. The first will be on property now owned by the VFW and by the Lowell Car Wash and the second phase will be the rest of the street. Until this work is completed it will be difficult to attract businesses to that area. The funding in the capital budget is for design. Once that’s done, they will seek funding for the construction. Phase 1 will create a four-way intersection with the entrance to Target Plaza on the other side of Plain Street.
B) Sidewalk Seating/ADA Compliance. CM Donoghue explains that through the outdoor seating season, city inspectors patrol the downtown checking compliance with the 40 inches from the curb requirement.
C) DPW Inventory Management
D) List of Non-operational Items and Items in Disrepair Update
E) Periodic Maintenance at Schools
F) Update on Construction at VFW Highway and Aiken St. Bridge
G) Neighborhood Schools. It’s up to the School Committee to initiate this process. Councilor Leahy says we essentially have neighborhood schools according to the school budget, but he asks the Mayor to confirm this. Councilor Elliott asks about the “consent decree” from the late 1980s and what would have to be done to obtain relief from that. City Solicitor says city would have to petition the court to have the existing order vacated or modified. Councilors also contend that the city’s neighborhoods are integrated which lessens the need for bussing children to schools outside their neighborhoods.
H) Article 97. Manager Donoghue explains that the waiver of Article 97 was limited to building the high school on that site. Nothing else could be built there and if the school is not constructed within 5 years, the exemption will automatically expire. However, there will be a need for relief from Article 97 for the air rights over the Merrimack Canal for the new downtown high school. Since Article 97 will be brought to the legislature for that reason, it might be wise to include the cancellation of the waiver for the Cawley site at the same time. This should be filed in January at the start of the next legislative session. Councilor Kennedy asks about the status of the replacement fields that were intended to replace the space used at Cawley.
I) Distinguished Veteran of the Year. Awarded to Eric Lamarche by American Society of Public Administrators.
J) FY19 LPSD Funding Update.
K) Proposed Rule Change re Free Speech Zone. Council takes up two related motions at same time:
Mercier – Req. City Mgr. have Law Department provide an outline of where people are allowed to demonstrate or protest if not in Council Chamber during a public meeting and posts signs indicating such. She commends the CM for anticipating these council motions with the proposed rule change. She says she is not as concerned about booing or cheering. What she does question is who has the authority to give the order to clear the meeting. She says that if it’s during the council meeting, that would be up to the mayor. If it is during a subcommittee meeting, it would be up to the subcommittee chair.
Elliott – Req. City Mgr. develop a policy and/or designated area to allow citizens to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. Says Councilor Mercier summed up the issue pretty well. He says he believes in the First Amendment but there’s a time and place to do it but this council chamber should be a place where opinions are exchanged, not where discourse is prevented from occurring.
Councilor Cirillo, the chair of that subcommittee, said she did follow the council’s procedure. The subcommittee left the chambers, asked for the police to be present, then resumed the media and adjourned the meeting. She said she felt disrespected because of the selfish bullying of the protesters because the other residents weren’t allowed to have their say. So she supports this effort to evolve the rules.
Councilor Nuon says he believes everyone should be heard. There are ways to make your point while being respectful. He said what happened last week was disrespectful. He said we do have rules and the council may have to amend the rules, but what took place last week should not be allowed to happen again.
Councilor Milinazzo says he wasn’t present last week but he’s watched video of it. He says what happened last week was wrong but he won’t support the establishment of a free speech zone. He believes the council rules if enforced are sufficient. Up until last week, the council has had an excellent record of allowing vigorous debate while still being respectful.
Councilor Conway says he’ll support both motions.
Councilor Leahy says he doesn’t support free speech zones although he will support reviewing the rules. He says nothing like this has ever happened before so it’s not necessary to establish such a procedure.
Councilor Kennedy asks to hear from the City Manager. CM Donoghue says demonstrations have traditionally taken place outside of public buildings here in Lowell, but not in the city council chamber. In this case, the council chamber had been physically taken over by protestors. They refused to come to order when ordered to do so by the subcommittee. Police are not normally present for subcommittee meetings but they responded quickly but by then the subcommittee meeting had ended. She says that since the meeting, several councilors had asked about a response to the protests so she went ahead and drafted a proposed policy, but she adds it’s the province of the council to establish rules for its meetings so she just offers this draft policy as an option for the council to consider. That’s why the cover letter suggested sending it to the rules committee. She adds that other than last week, it’s not something she considered to be necessary.
Councilor Kennedy says he is on the subcommittee that was shut down by the protestors. He says he thinks of subcommittee meetings as workshops or informational sessions. The subcommittee has no independent power and can only make recommendations. He said last week, it wasn’t something that escalated but a premeditated plan to prevent the meeting from being held. It isn’t something we can let happen again. The alternative would be to have a police officer at every subcommittee meeting. He thinks it is appropriate to send this to the Rules Subcommittee.
The City Clerk says procedurally, any rules amendment must first be referred to the Rules Subcommittee for a recommendation but that any changes require a super majority vote of the council.
Council votes unanimously to refer entire matter to Rules Subcommittee.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .