Lowell Year in Review: December 30, 2018

My annual review of Lowell political events for this past year:

The nine victors in the bruising 2017 Lowell City Council race gathered at City Hall on Tuesday, January 2, 2018, take the oath of office and to elect a mayor. Bill Samaras won that contest with five votes to four for John Leahy. Samaras received the support of Karen Cirillo, Ed Kennedy, Jim Milinazzo, Vesna Nuon and himself. Leahy got the votes of Dave Conway, Rodney Elliott, Rita Mercier and himself.

The new council quickly rescinded the prior council’s vote to locate a new Lowell High School at Cawley Stadium and voted instead to keep it downtown in a combination renovation/new construction project. The council also voted to take the property at 75 Arcand Drive by eminent domain for the high school project.

Eileen Donoghue interviewing for City Manager

The 2018 state election, already of great interest in Lowell due to Niki Tsongas’s earlier announcement that she would not seek re-election to Congress, got even more interesting in April when incumbent State Senator Eileen Donoghue was selected by the City Council to be Lowell’s next City Manager (and also, the city’s first female City Manager). Donoghue would replace Kevin Murphy who announced his retirement earlier in the year. Because Donoghue’s resignation from the senate was beyond the deadline for a special election, the 1st Middlesex Seat would remain open until her successor was chosen in the regular state election in the fall.

City Councilor Ed Kennedy won the Democratic Primary for the State Senate seat, defeating John Drinkwater, Rodney Elliott, Bill Martin and Terry Ryan. Kennedy went on to defeat Republican nominee John MacDonald in the general election.

The Congressional race attracted a dozen Democratic candidates, ten of whom made it to the extremely warm September 4, 2018, primary. A big field of good candidates and an unusual day for an election (the day after Labor Day) made for an extremely close finish. The initial count had Lori Trahan ahead of Dan Koh by just a few dozen votes, and she was able to extend her lead during an intense recount which made her the Democratic nominee. Other candidates in that Democratic primary besides Trahan and Koh were (in order of finish) Juana Matias; Barbara L’Italien; Rufus Gifford; Alexandra Chandler; Beej Das; Jeff Ballinger; Bopha Malone; and Leonard Golder. In November, Trahan trounced Republican Rick Green and unenrolled Mike Mullen to win the seat.

Also in the Democratic Primary, incumbent state representative Rady Mom (18th Middlesex District) prevailed over challengers Rithy Uong, Jim Leary and Sam Meas and longtime incumbent Bill Galvin soundly defeated Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim in the race for Secretary of State.

In the general election, to no one’s surprise, incumbent U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker were both re-elected by wide margins.

In July, the Lowell School Committee voted to place Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui first on administrative leave and then to fire him by a 4 to 3 vote with Mayor Bill Samaras and School Committee members Jackie Doherty, Connie Martin and Gerry Nutter voting to replace Khelfaoui. School Committee members Bob Hoey, Andy Descoteaux and Dominik Lay all voted to retain Khelfaoui. Deputy Superintendent Jeannine Durkin was then named Acting Superintendent of the Lowell Schools.

Although the four who ousted Khelfaoui cited numerous reasons for doing so, the primary one was fiscal mismanagement, a position that was corroborated by the release in early December of an outside audit of the Lowell School Department finances which showed, among other things, a $3.4mil deficit in the current fiscal year. The fiscal crisis of the Lowell public schools remained unresolved by the end of 2018.

Infrastructure problems also plagued Lowell schools, particularly the high school, which was forced to close on a number of days in the winter and spring for either a lack of heat or because of leaks in natural gas heating units. While the city – which is responsible for the school buildings – has spent several million dollars for repairs, some of the same problems persist.

Building problems were not limited to public school buildings. In January, a burst water pipe in the Pollard Memorial Library flooded the facility and caused thousands of dollars of damage and forced the library to close for several weeks.

As bad as these problems were, they couldn’t compare to those suffered by our neighbors down river in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover when erroneously conducted repairs of a natural gas pipeline caused a system-wide over pressurization that resulted in dozens of fires and building explosions. Subsequent repairs meant many residents were without head and hot water for several months afterwards.

On a related note, National Grid continues its lock out of union workers in a contract dispute that began at midyear. Although another company was responsible for the Essex County disaster, the absence of these experienced workers from the natural gas labor pool contributed to a growing sense of unease about the use of natural gas. Perhaps this has increased enthusiasm for an interest in Solarize Mass Lowell Plus, a newly formed state-local-private partnership that promotes the use of solar and clean heat in Lowell homes.

There was also some good news at UMass Lowell. Oprah visited the University and helped raise $3mil for the school. UML Chancellor Jacquie Moloney’s contract was extended for another three years and the school launched its Southeast Asian Digital Archive. Middlesex Community College cut the ribbon on its Donahue Family Fine Arts Building in the former Rialto/B&M Depot on Central Street.

Lowell Judicial Center

In other infrastructure news, the Lowell Judicial Center continues to show progress towards its scheduled opening in late 2019 and the road, utilities and bridge work in the Hamilton Canal District continues. Renovations to the former Franco-American school by a partnership that includes Coalition for a Better Acre seemed to progress rapidly since the summer. A proposed privately owned and operated student dormitory for the former Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union lot on Merrimack Street was defeated by the Planning Board. By the end of the year, many residents of the Highlands were agitated by news that several retail marijuana dispensaries are pursuing authorizations to locate on the outskirts of that neighborhood.

scene from Kinetic Sculpture Race

In May, the Lowell Waterways Vitality Initiative succeeded in lighting up the Cox Bridge. The Kinetic Sculpture Race and the Points of Light Lantern Celebration both repeated past successes as did Lowell’s mainstay festivals (Folk, Southeast Asian, African and Winterfest). Lowell National Historical Park celebrated its 40th anniversary (but didn’t celebrate Christmas since it was closed by the Federal government shutdown in late December).

There were many other things, good and bad, that occurred in 2018. Please add to my list by leaving a comment.