The consequences of Councilor Corey Robinson’s pending criminal charges dominated Lowell politics again this week. The Councilor is not due back in court until early January, however, on Tuesday he participated in a Council meeting for the first time since his mid-November arrest.
In spite of six of the ten other Councilors having publicly called for Robinson to step aside from his Council duties until his criminal case (which involves charges of domestic violence) is concluded, Robinson filed five different motions for this week’s meeting, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation.
On Tuesday night when Clerk Michael Geary called the roll, Robinson answered present but he did so via Zoom and so was not physically inside the Council chamber. Nine of his Council colleagues were physically at the meeting with Council Paul Ratha Yem absent. (Yem was one of the Councilors who had called for Robinson to step aside.) The Council chamber was also packed with spectators.
About 15 minutes into the meeting, Councilor Wayne Jenness asked Mayor Sokhary Chau to suspend the rules and take Council Motion 6.8 out of order since a member of the public was registered to speak on it. Jointly filed by Councilors Jenness, Vesna Nuon, John Leahy, and John Drinkwater, this motion requested “the City Manager have the proper department provide a report on best practices for adding censure of a member to the City Council rules.”
Clerk Geary called out, “Deb Belanger” and Ms. Belanger, the former director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, walked to the podium. As she did, dozens of audience members, mostly women, stood and gathered around her.
Belanger read from a prepared statement and delivered her remarks with great passion. She supported the motion and asked that it include standards of conduct for Councilors and specific actions to be taken against a Councilor who “violates the dignity and decorum of their position.” She said, “We expect elected officials to be held to a higher standard than the average person.” She ended with this:
“It is indeed time to think of the good and progress of all in Lowell. It is time to think about what would be best for something that is larger than one person. It is time to think of the city as a whole. We believe Mr. Robinson should resign.”
(The Lowell Telecommunications video recording of the meeting is available on YouTube. Belanger’s remarks begin at the 15-minute mark of the recording and go for five minutes.)
Belanger was the only member of the public who spoke on this motion although when she finished, she received loud and sustained applause from many in the Council Chamber.
Councilors then spoke on the motion. Councilors Jenness, Nuon, and Leahy all stated that the Council needs a code of conduct to incorporate into its rules. Councilor Drinkwater acknowledged that in the criminal justice system, the accused is deemed to be innocent until proven guilty, but he added that outside of the criminal justice system, there may be instances when one has “violated moral and ethical conduct” in a way that is deserving of a formal response from the Council, yet the rules as currently configured provide no such option.
Mayor Chau then relinquished the chair to Vice Chair Erik Gitschier and from the floor of the Council made a statement in support of the motion but he also spoke directly to the residents of Lowell saying that “if you don’t feel safe in your own home, please call the Lowell Police Department.” He ended by saying “the City Council must send a clear message to victims of domestic violence that they will be supported regardless of who the alleged abuser is.”
Councilor Dan Rourke then called for a roll call on the motion. All ten Councilors participating in the meeting – including Councilor Robinson – voted Yes on the motion.
There followed some routine public hearings and then the Council Motions portion of the agenda was reached. That was uneventful until Motion 6.12 was called. That was first of five consecutive motions by Councilor Robinson. As soon as Mayor Chau called this motion, Councilor Drinkwater spoke up and said, “I move to table this motion.” It was immediately seconded by another Councilor. (This is at 1:21 of the recording).
The purpose of a motion to table is to postpone the discussion of an item to a later time. The motion to table is a “privileged motion” which means it takes precedence over the motion currently being discussed. It is also not debatable meaning that once a Councilor proposes that an item be tabled, there can’t be any discussion about the merits of tabling it. The Council must immediately proceed to a vote.
That’s exactly what the Council did, with Councilors Drinkwater, Jenness, Leahy, Nuon, Rourke, Scott, and Mayor Chau voting to table, and Councilors Gitschier, Rita Mercier, and Robinson voting against doing that.
When Councilor Robinson’s next motion was called, the process repeated, only this time it was Councilor Jenness who made the motion to table. With the third Robinson motion, Councilor Scott moved to table it. With the fourth Robinson motion, Councilor Nuon moved to table it. With the fifth Robinson motion, Councilor Leahy moved to table it. All with the same result.
Something that has been tabled can be taken up at a later time. A Councilor could make a “motion to take an item from the table” and, if a majority votes to do that, regular debate on the tabled motion may resume. However, after the passage of some amount of time (I’m not sure of how much under the rules of this Council), an item laid on the table dies and is removed from the agenda.
The three Councilors who opposed the tabling of these motions – Robinson, Gitscher, and Mercier – were not going to let it pass without comment. Asking for points of personal privilege, each spoke.
Councilor Robinson said these motions were time-sensitive and urged those watching at home to conclude that the pro-tabling Councilors didn’t care about these issues.
Councilor Gitschier said the entire “tabling” outcome had been “staged” and accused the other Councilors of violating the state’s Open Meeting Law by coordinating their actions in advance.
Councilor Mercier said “no one is for domestic violence” but she said she has known victims of domestic violence, but she also knows people who have been falsely accused of domestic violence who have still been sent to jail. She said in Councilor Robinson’s case, we have only heard one side of the story. She criticized the other Councilors for acting prematurely before the outcome of the criminal case is known. Three different times in her remarks, Mercier called the actions of the Councilors who tabled Robinson’s motion “a disgrace.” She then commended Councilor Robinson for “having the courage to show up” at this Council meeting and closed by stating “men can be the victims of domestic violence, too.” (Mercier’s comments come at 1:26:30 of the video).
Councilor Leahy was the only one of the pro-tabling Councilors who responded and he said simply that the motions in question addressed issues that were being capably handled by city department heads and the City Manager’s office, adding “this is not stuff we need to meddle in.”
The Council quickly completed the rest of the agenda and the meeting came to an end.
(For Lowell Sun coverage of these events, see “’We believe Mr. Robinson should resign,’ says community groups.”)
Supporters of Councilor Robinson and others have claimed it’s premature to take any action against him now because “everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.” While that’s true in the sense there has not yet been a criminal trial that reached a verdict of guilty or not guilty, it ignores the fact that a judge in the Lowell District Court has already held a “dangerousness hearing” in the aftermath of Robinson’s arrest.
In that hearing, the judge heard evidence presented by the prosecution. Robinson, who was already represented by a lawyer by that point, had an equal opportunity to present evidence on his behalf but chose not to. That was wise from a criminal defense perspective since anything he said at the preliminary hearing could be used against him at a subsequent trial, but that does not detract from the fact that he had an opportunity to “tell his side of the story” and chose not to.
At the conclusion of that hearing, the judge found “by clear and convincing evidence” that Robinson was a danger. Based on that finding, the law authorized the judge to order Robinson held in custody which is what the prosecution asked the judge to do. If the judge had opted to do that, Robinson would have been held in the Billerica House of Correction until his trial. Robinson only dodged pretrial incarceration because the judge decided to allow him to remain in the community while wearing a GPS monitor instead of spending at least the next two months in jail.
So procedurally, this case is already very different than a standard arrest where it is only the discretion of a police officer who has brought the charges against the defendant. In Robinson’s case, after an evidentiary hearing, a judge found by “clear and convincing evidence” – which means the evidence was so clear, direct, and convincing that the judge reached a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the facts presented – that Robinson was a danger.
Moving on to some other items . . .
At their November 14, 2023, meeting, Councilors had an extended discussion on homelessness, especially the practice by some who are homeless of camping outdoors on public property. The city has conducted several “sweeps” in which campsites have been removed, but whenever this happens Councilors receive pointed criticism from advocates of homeless campers. During this debate, several Councilors stated their desire for Lowell to adopt an anti-camping ordinance like the one recently enacted in Boston.
Late in October, the Boston City Council passed an ordinance proposed by Mayor Michelle Wu that would ban tent encampments.
Here’s how the Boston ordinance works: It is enforced by a combined team of outreach workers and first responders. It describes two sets of responses by city officials, one when shelter is available and one when shelter is not available.
When shelter is available, the city’s response team will approach the person living in the encampment and:
ONE – Offer of Shelter – City employees will provide an offer of available Emergency Shelter Space to individuals and must inform individuals that transportation to the Emergency Shelter is available.
TWO – Storage of Property – City employees will offer and provide storage for personal belongings, consistent with the City Storage Program Policy. If property at a campsite is not claimed by any person, City staff will assess whether it is abandoned or temporarily unattended and shall store temporarily unattended eligible property.
THREE – Removal of the Encampment – Once the City has engaged an individual with an Offer of Shelter and Storage of Property, the City will remove any campsite and camp materials that are not removed by the individual.
When shelter is unavailable
If emergency shelter is unavailable, a Campsite or use of Camping materials must comply with existing state and local laws to ensure the public health and safety of those in and around the Campsite. City officials will be maintaining a list, updated daily, with available shelter information.
The full text of the Boston “Unlawful Camping on Public Property” ordinance is available on the city’s website.
This is an ongoing issue in Lowell so it’s likely to arise again. I’m not sure how much the new Boston ordinance differs from the practices already followed in Lowell, but it might be a good idea to formalize the procedure in a Lowell ordinance based on the one adopted by Boston.
I’m a regular consumer of Lowell’s drinking water. To me, it tastes good and, as far as I know, it’s not made me sick. Providing that service is one of the great (and greatly unappreciated) achievements of local government since even in my lifetime, drinking water drawn from the Merrimack River was ill-advised.
However, a recent report from the Merrimack River Watershed Alliance says that record rainfalls in the region last summer overwhelmed treatment facilities in the cities along the Merrimack River and caused a surge of raw sewage to flow into the river. Manchester, Nashua, and Lowell were all cited as having experienced major discharges of untreated water into the river. Researches have documented a substantial increase in the number of people being treated in emergency rooms for gastrointestinal illnesses in the days following such discharges. The study did trace the illnesses to direct contact with the water as in swimming or boating, but there is concern that drinking water might also be affected.
The city of Lowell devoted a large chunk of Covid-era ARPA funds to upgrades of the city’s sewer system and a substantial amount of city-funded work had already been done, but there is still more to be accomplished. But this is not just a sewage problem. Every time a green space gets built upon or paved over, more water flows into the sewers and less percolates into the ground. Pretty much all efforts at greater sustainability help since the extreme weather events that come with worsening climate change will only make this problem more severe.