Here are my choices for the most important political events in Lowell in 2023:
Turnout in the November city election was historically low with approximately 7500 people voting. Two years ago, nearly 12,000 cast votes. While that seems like a lot compared to the total this year, remember that in a gubernatorial election year 25,000 vote in Lowell and in a Presidential election nearly 35,000 cast ballots.
A very diverse School Committee became less so with the departure of two of its members. Stacey Thompson, the first Black woman elected to any office in Lowell, lost her reelection race this year to Fred Bahou. Susie Chhoun, who ran for School Committee and lost in 2021 but who joined the Committee early in the term when Andy Descoteaux resigned for health reasons, chose not to run for reelection to the School Committee. Instead, she ran for a City Council District seat, challenging incumbent Kim Scott who prevailed. The District School Committee seat held by Chhoun will be filled by former City Councilor and School Committee member Dave Conway who ran unopposed. And while we will not know who the Mayor will be during the next term, it likely will not be current Mayor Sokhary Chau who, as Mayor, was also the chair of the School Committee. Chau’s departure from the School Committee may further reduce that board’s diversity, depending on who succeeds him.
On the City Council, John Drinkwater, who held an At Large seat, did not run for reelection. District Councilor Erik Gitschier ran citywide and won. He will join Rita Mercier and Vesna Nuon as the three At Large Councilors. First time candidate John Descoteaux won the District Council seat that was held by Gitschier.
In November, Councilor Corey Robinson became the first Lowell City Councilor since the adoption of Plan E in 1943 to be arrested while holding office. Robinson was charged with two counts of assault and battery on a family member. After a preliminary hearing in the Lowell District Court, a judge found Robinson to be a danger but released him from custody provided he wear a GPS tracking device and comply with limits on his ability to travel. Although a majority of the other Councilors have publicly called for Robinson to “step aside” from the Council during the pendency of his case, Robinson has participated in Council meetings via Zoom. However, that same majority of his colleagues voted at two meetings to “table” Robinson’s motions, and at the last meeting, voted his motions down outright. Robinson’s next court date is in early January 2024.
Millions of dollars received from the Federal government under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was spent by the city on a number of things including a new fleet of fire trucks, upgrades to the city’s sewage system, upgrades to parks (one park per Council district), and grants to civic and cultural groups.
In April, Superintendent of Schools Joel Boyd announced he was leaving Lowell to become the CEO of a Philadelphia-area charter school network. Boyd had served as Lowell Superintendent since 2019. He was replaced by Deputy Superintendent Liam Skinner who previously was the longtime principal of the Daley Middle School.
Lowell’s nonprofit sector received news late in the year that two longtime leaders will leave their posts in 2024. Karen Frederick will retire from Community Teamwork and Yun-Ju Choi will leave the Coalition for a Better Acre to care for her elderly parents.
In April, the city fell victim to a cyberattack that shut down many city services and cost more than $1 million to remediate. Aftereffects of the outage persist in some areas of city government.
The Lowell High construction project continued on time and on budget. By the end of the year, the exterior of the newly constructed Freshmen Academy building at the corner of Arcand Drive and French Street was largely completed. The building is scheduled to be finished for the start of the 2024-25 academic year.
Homelessness continues to be an issue for the City Council, especially in the winter. While “aggressive panhandlers” received much of the attention last year, the dominant topic this year has been “tent encampments.” The city has been aggressive in removing them, but the incidence of homelessness is at an all-time high nationwide, which makes any solution elusive.
After nearly a year of discussing a zoning change that would allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in the city, the City Council reversed course just before the November election and rejected the ADU plan. In many preliminary votes, the Council was split 7 to 4 in favor of ADUs with Mayor Chau and Councilors Nuon, Leahy, Drinkwater, Jenness, Rourke, and Yem favoring them and Councilors Mercier, Gitschier, Robinson, and Scott opposing them. However, after neighborhood opposition grew more strident, Chau, Nuon and Leahy, switched to opposing ADUs and the proposal failed. That may only have been a temporary win for opponents since a major element of the mammoth housing bond bill recently filed by Governor Maura Healey calls for greater allowance of ADUs as a big part of the solution to the state’s housing shortage.
For much of the year the city seemed unable to find candidates for the many city jobs that had become vacant. The City Manager and City Council took some steps to address that and by the end of the year it seems City staffing had rebounded. However, City Solicitor Helen Tomlinson who was hired in January to replace longtime Solicitor Christine O’Connor, abruptly resigned in April. She was replaced by the also recently hired first Assistant Solicitor Corey Williams.
There was some real estate news that should be mentioned: The multi-year Lord Overpass redevelopment was completed. A large water main broke on Race Street, causing flooding throughout the area and extensive property damage, especially to some buildings owned by the Lowell Housing Authority. The City transferred LeLacheur Field to the University of Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts Lowell ceased using the downtown UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center and made it available to the state for possible use as an emergency shelter for migrant families. The city installed new parking kiosks and is performing renovations to several parking garages although the city’s Parking Enterprise Fund continues to run a deficit. The United States Supreme Court in Tyler v. Hennepin County held a Minnesota real estate tax lien law unconstitutional. Because the Massachusetts law mirrors the one in Minnesota, most believe the Massachusetts law is also invalid. The Massachusetts legislature has begun the work of amending the law but until then, Lowell and other municipalities have put all tax lien auctions and sales on hold.
Thank you for reading and Happy New Year.