Richard Howe newsletter: Jan 21, 2024

Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting featured City Manager Tom Golden’s “State of the City” address. There’s nothing in the City Charter or the Council Rules that requires such a speech, but back in the 1990s City Managers began delivering them and that has continued. At first, the State of the City was a spectacle that mimicked State of the Union or State of the Commonwealth speeches with a large roster of invited guests and a “this is a big deal” atmosphere. In more recent years, the speech has been treated, more appropriately, as a verbal report on the achievements of the current administration.

Manager Golden’s remarks, which lasted 45 minutes and were accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, were a recitation of his administration’s priorities and accomplishments during the past year. But he spent the early part of his remarks talking about the dire circumstances that existed when he took office on April 28, 2022, twice using the phrase, “rip the band aid off” to describe his approach to dealing with the challenging situation he inherited. He indicated that the City Councilors who hired him wanted a new direction for the city. His mission was to “recognize our deficiencies, solve the problem, and move forward.”

Maybe I missed something, but I don’t recall the transition from City Manager Eileen Donoghue to City Manager Tom Golden being a time of crisis. My recollection is that a newly elected City Council wanted Golden to be City Manager, rejected Donoghue’s request for a one-year extension to her contract, and then unanimously voted for Golden.

The conflict between my memory and the tone of Golden’s remarks caused me to listen carefully for specifics about the crisis of early 2022. The City Manager mentioned some of the problems he inherited: the use of ARPA funds; the need for improvements to roads and sidewalks; problems with school building maintenance; the challenge of homelessness; and the intricacies of city finances.

Regarding ARPA funds, my memory is that the point of contention was Donoghue’s intent to spend a large chunk of it on much-needed improvements to Cawley Stadium and Shedd Park, whereas the newly elected City Council, the first chosen under the hybrid system of mostly District Councilors, wanted that money allocated proportionally to all of the Council Districts rather than devoted almost entirely to the Belvidere neighborhood (the home of Cawley and Shedd). I think Donoghue had also earmarked $6 million in ARPA funding to new fire department vehicles whereas Golden and the Council upped that to $10 million. In both cases, I agreed with the new spending, but it seemed more like a policy difference than a perilous time for the city.

Regarding routine road maintenance, I think the city has long been neglectful in that area, so devoting more resources on a consistent basis would be desirable. The challenge has always been that there is never enough money for the city to do everything it should, so longer-term expenditures like road maintenance and vehicle replacement tend to get put off so that salaries can be paid and layoffs averted.

This is why all the ARPA funding that came to the city from the Federal government was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Many of the tough financial choices that restrained prior administrations were removed by this windfall of Federal funding. The true test will come over the next few years as ARPA money runs out and state aid is reduced as the much talked about decline in state tax revenue translates to cutbacks in the next state budget.

Still, the Golden administration deserves credit for improving how the city does the basic things cities are supposed to do like keeping the roads in good shape. Similar commitments to maintaining the sewer and water systems are also noteworthy as is the city’s commitment to sustainability.

The speech was strong on highlighting accomplishments but skipped over some of the biggest challenges the city has faced. For example, a quick adoption of the MBTA Zoning requirements was justifiably cited, but there was no mention of the wholesale rejection of Accessory Dwelling Units. New parking kiosks were on the list but there was no mention of the substantial deficit in the Parking Enterprise Fund. And many desperately needed HVAC and boiler upgrades and replacements in City schools were listed but there was no corresponding mention of the continued inability of the city to reliably maintain these units after they’ve been installed.

The highlight for me was citing “LifeLock credit monitoring and identity protection for all employees and their families” as some kind of an employment benefit when it was necessitated by the devastating cyberattack that paralyzed the city’s automated systems back in April, an occurrence that was not mentioned in the speech (or if it was, it was brief enough to miss).

Manager Golden closed his remarks by previewing Lowell Forward which is the update of the city’s comprehensive master plan. Golden said this document will be unveiled in late February and that it will be a “living, breathing document” that will “set Lowell apart from all other Gateway Cities.” He said that rather than have the plan “sit on a shelf and collect dust,” each month two city department heads will brief Councilors on their portion of the plan. Then six months later, those same department heads will return and update Councilors on how successful they have been in implementing the plan.

This sounds great, but it’s always been the Councilors who have been the dust-collectors of strategic plans. Their timeline is much shorter, and their attention deficit is so pronounced that they have difficulty planning from week-to-week, never mind for a decade or two.

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The familiar proverb, “Live by the sword, die by the sword” has a new corollary for the Lowell City Council: “Live by Robert’s Rules of Order, die by Robert’s Rules of Order.” Just weeks ago, Robert’s Rules of Order was cited to undercut efforts by some Councilors to informally sanction Councilor Corey Robinson by tabling the motions he filed.

This week, Robert’s Rules of Order was used to erase 180 unanswered Council motions from the City Manager’s To Do list. Here’s what happened:

On Tuesday night, Councilor Wayne Jenness made a motion to “bundle” five motions on the agenda, all made by him, and all marked “Re-File.” In an off-handed comment, Jenness mentioned that he refiled these motions because, as he now understood it, since the motions had not been answered by the end of the last Council term, they died procedurally and would have to be refiled to be acted upon.

That was news to the other Councilors. Erik Gitschier questioned City Solicitor Corey Williams who said that was indeed the case. Williams said that since the Council Rules were silent as to what happens to unresolved motions at the end of a term, the matter is governed by Robert’s Rules of Order which says that any matter not finally disposed of at the end of a session must “fall to the ground.” Further action would require the refiling and re-adoption of the same motion.

Gitschier, who was the proponent of strict adherence to Robert’s Rules when it came to tabling Robinson’s motions, now questioned the wisdom of applying Robert’s Rules. He pressed Solicitor Williams on who had put him up to this.

City Manager Golden confessed. He explained that in the state legislature, where he served for nearly 28 years before becoming City Manager, any bills that had not been acted upon by the end of the legislative session automatically died and had to be refiled in the next session. In preparing for the State of the City speech, he raised the question of what happened to pending Council motions at the end of the Council term and his administration concluded the outcome should be the same as it is in the Legislature. (The State of the City speech listed “Answered 700 Council motions” as an accomplishment but did not mention the other 180 motions that had yet to be answered).

Gitschier proposed an immediate change to the Council Rules so that unanswered motions be carried over to the start of the new Council term, but City Clerk Michael Geary shot down the timing of that effort saying that proposed changes to Council Rules must first appear on the agenda then be sent to the Council’s Rules Subcommittee and then come back to the Council for a vote.

I assume Councilors will make this change expeditiously but that will take a few weeks. In the meantime, we can expect some very long agendas for upcoming meetings as Councilors, anxious to get answers to old motions, file them again.

Two further points on this: I think the Administration’s interpretation is wrong. Someone who served many years in the state legislature once told me that in each legislative session, there are 20,000 bills filed and only 500 are enacted. Whether that’s accurate or not, the point is that filing a bill is sometimes just a pretense for issuing a press release and whatever the ratio, many of the bills that are filed during a session are never even taken up.

In contrast, unanswered Council motions have been acted upon. Once adopted by the Council, a motion constitutes a direct order to the City Manager who, as an employee of the Council, is obliged to follow them. (Although technically, the City Council has no authority to tell the City Manager how to run the city, so the City Manager would be legally justified in simply ignoring all the Council motions that say, “request City Manager” do this or that, but given political realities, that sounds like a good way to get fired by Councilors).

The second, more important point, is the propensity for the last Council to make a paralyzingly high number of motions. Even factoring in the Council’s expansion from nine to eleven members, there has never been a Council in the city’s history that made as many motions as this past Council did. The troubling consequence of that is that answering motions takes considerable time. The same people who devote time to that task would otherwise be doing their primary jobs. Consequently, actually doing tasks needed to run the city loses out to drafting responses to the avalanche of motions.

Additionally, many of the Council motions are reactionary which is fatal to strategic operations (hence my earlier comment that the primary enemies of strategic plans have been Councilors). Under Plan E, the Council hires the City Manager to manage the city. Recent Councils have treated the City Manager more as the Council’s personal troubleshooter who is second-guessed every Tuesday night.

It would be interesting to make a public records request of the City Manager requesting a record of all text messages and phone calls received from City Councilors over the past six months. You wouldn’t need the content of the calls or texts, just the dates and times and the name of the caller to quantify this propensity for micromanaging.

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Congratulations to Lowell Public Schools Superintendent Liam Skinner for having the “interim” label removed from his title by the School Committee. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Lowell Public Schools over the past 15 years has been leadership churn at the very top. The School Committee hires a new Superintendent who soon loses favor with the committee and then departs thus starting the same cycle over again. Since Karla Brooks Baehr ended her eight-year tenure in 2008, the LPS Superintendent’s office has had a revolving door with each occupant departing in about three years, often engulfed in controversy or ill-feelings.

Process is important, but so is stability at the top. Every new Superintendent comes in with great-sounding plans and strategies but then never sticks around long enough to implement them, and the cycle of always starting something new but never getting results occurs over and over again.

Recent School Committees have adhered to process in hiring Superintendents without any long-term success. Why do the same thing again with predictably bad results? Superintendent Skinner has worked in the Lowell School system for more than two decades. During his tenure as principal, the Daley Middle School was widely considered one of the best in the City. That should count for as much as a slick resume and an impressive interview by a member of the nomadic school administrator cohort who make up the bulk of applicants for vacant positions.

Rather than risking a known commodity to devotion to a process that hasn’t worked, the School Committee was right to go for stability and make Skinner’s superintendency permanent (or however close to permanent holding that office in Lowell can be).

However, not everyone on the School Committee agreed with that approach. The motion to make Skinner permanent was adopted by a 4 to 3 vote with YES votes from Mayor Dan Rourke and School Committee members Dominik Lay, Fred Bahou, and Dave Conway; and NO votes from members Jackie Doherty, Connie Martin, and Eileen DelRossi.

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