At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Lowell City Council moved efficiently through a short agenda, completing the meeting in just 90 minutes. One thing that contributed to the meeting’s brevity was the presence of just five motion responses on the agenda. With 15 new motions passed the same night, simple math suggests the backlog of unanswered motions – there were 180 of them leftover from the last session – will continue to grow.
And as the City Manager’s office tries to pick up the pace of answering all of these motions while still managing the city, the responses may fall short of Council expectations. That happened Tuesday with the response to a request by Councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson to “consider adoption of Boston’s ‘Scofflaw Property Owner List’ Ordinance.”
The response included the full text of the Boston ordinance which creates a public list of problem properties, the criteria for being added to it, how to be removed from it, and the consequences of being on it, namely that the owner of the property is prohibited from “doing business with the city” which seems to mean being barred from getting city contracts.
Instead of proposing a similar ordinance for Lowell, the motion response suggests creating an online “problem property list” that would be posted on the city’s website every six months. To be considered a “problem property” would require four or more calls within the preceding year about the property to the police for criminal offenses or complaints for noise, or to Development Services for unsanitary conditions.
The motion response pointed out that the Development Services Office already closely monitors problem properties and prohibits the issuance of new permits to the property owner until the violations are fixed (unless the permit is for something that would remedy a violation). Similarly, city staffers who provide grant funding to property owners confirm there are no existing code violations in properties about to receive awards.
Councilors seemed underwhelmed by this response, which, except for adding a list on the city website, proposes just doing what is already being done. After several Councilors criticized the response, the body sent it back to the City Manager for a different answer.
Discussion on a response to a Councilor Robinson motion about a hole in the sidewalk in front of the Purple Carrot at Merrimack and John Streets morphed into a mini-symposium on urban history, real estate law, and legal liability. It was interesting, but seemed mildly frustrating to Mayor Dan Rourke who wanted to move the meeting along.
Many of the buildings in downtown Lowell have basements that extend underneath the sidewalk in front of the building. This provided businesses with storage space and, in some cases, access to that storage space through a grate in the sidewalk without the need to go into the building. These under-the-sidewalk spaces are called “vaults” and through the years, many have fallen into disrepair. This in turn poses a risk to the integrity of the sidewalk. Having a large group of people – say spectators for a parade – or a piece of heavy equipment – like a DPW Bobcat clearing snow – on the sidewalk above the vault increases the risk of the sidewalk collapsing.
So the question becomes, who is responsible for repairing the vault? The city’s position, correctly I believe, is that the owner of the building is responsible. While the vault sits underneath the city’s sidewalk, the city does not own the land, it just owns the right to install and use a sidewalk over land which is still a portion of the parcel on which the building sits. Although the city sidewalk might not be technically called an easement, that legal term describes the ownership and rights that exist in this situation.
However, in the question of who would be liable if someone was injured in the collapse of a sidewalk, that answer likely is “everyone” although the city’s monetary exposure might be capped by state law. But surely no one wants it to get to that point which means fixing the vaults. Unfortunately, that is a substantial expense and most building owners who are struggling with vacancies, a downtown bereft of people much of the time, and dim prospects for the economics of downtown building ownership improving, are unlikely to be able to afford the needed repairs anytime soon.
Before the main meeting on Tuesday night, the City Council’s Rules Subcommittee met to discuss (1) how to fill a vacancy on the Council; and (2) a procedure for censuring a member of the City Council. Councilors Sokhary Chau, Kim Scott, and John Descoteaux make up this subcommittee with Chau serving as chair.
Councilor Chau first invited members of the public to comment on either item. Deb Belanger, a onetime Council candidate and former director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, urged the subcommittee to also adopt a code of conduct for Councilors with the understanding that violation of the code of conduct would trigger a censure proceeding. Belanger, who at an earlier Council meeting had served as the spokesperson for a group of residents who called for Councilor Robinson to “step down” from the Council in the wake of his arrest in November, reiterated that elected officials should be held to a higher standard than the average person.
The subcommittee took up the “how to fill a vacancy” issue first. They had City Solicitor Corey Williams confirm his earlier memo that a vacancy on the Council would be filled by (1) the losing candidate for that seat with the most votes; and (2) if there was no other candidate, by a person selected by a majority of the sitting City Council.
By their comments, the members of the subcommittee seemed to prefer that a special election be held to fill a vacancy instead of either of the two existing methods. Some went so far as to ask that the bill now pending in the legislature “be pulled.” That bill would fill a Council vacancy when there was no losing candidate for the seat by someone selected by the combined City Council and School Committee.
However, the subcommittee got hung up on a cutoff date for a special election. For instance, if a Councilor were to resign on September 1 and the next election was just eight weeks later on November 1, it would seem pointless if not impossible to hold a special election. But what should that cutoff day be? Is it three months? Six months? A year? And whatever that date is, what happens to the seat until the next election? Does it stay vacant? Or does the Council then select someone to fill it?
In the end, the subcommittee asked Solicitor Williams to draft a new memo that sets out all the various scenarios, and to draw heavily on how it is done in other municipalities.
Regarding a procedure to censure a fellow Councilor, the subcommittee discussion fell into two areas. First was about a Code of Conduct for Councilors. The subcommittee asked the Solicitor to provide a report on existing Codes of Conduct from other communities. The second involved the consequence of a successful effort to censure a Councilor. The original Williams memo said the only consequence is that the censure becomes “part of the public record.” I think Williams’ point was that a finding of censure would not remove the offender from the Council; it would only subject the offender to the equivalent of a public shaming. But the subcommittee seemed interested in how long the censure finding would remain in the public records. Clerk Michael Geary answered that by saying it would be included in the minutes of the meeting and so would be public forever.
Expect another meeting of this Subcommittee at some future date before either of these issues return to the full City Council.
City Council candidates fall under the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance for fundraising and campaign expenditures. OCPF requires candidates to file end-of-the-year summary reports by January 20 of each year. The OCPF website contains a detailed breakdown on who contributed how much to each candidate and what candidates spent their money on.
Since money is important in politics, here is what each of the eleven Lowell City Councilors reported for 2023:
- Beginning balance: $26,854
- Amount raised: $54,712
- Amount spent: $36,606
- Cash on hand: $44,660
- Beginning balance: $0 (new candidate)
- Amount raised: $13,343
- Amount spent: $5,709
- Cash on hand: $7,634
- Beginning balance: $2,907
- Amount raised: $23,999
- Amount spent: $21,311
- Cash on hand: $5,596
- Beginning balance: $5,455
- Amount raised: $5,024
- Amount spent: $4,217
- Cash on hand: $6,263
- Beginning balance: $78
- Amount raised: $11,620
- Amount spent: $5,755
- Cash on hand: $5,944
- Beginning balance: $12,280
- Amount raised: $14,095
- Amount spent: $7,249
- Cash on hand: $19,126
- Beginning balance: $5,974
- Amount raised: $26,485
- Amount spent: $21,403
- Cash on hand: $11,057
- Beginning balance: $8,328
- Amount raised: $10,567
- Amount spent: $10,721
- Cash on hand: $7,979
- Beginning balance: $12,497
- Amount raised: $16,165
- Amount spent: $7,106
- Cash on hand: $21,556
- Beginning balance: $2,477
- Amount raised: $12,823
- Amount spent: $7,040
- Cash on hand: $8,260
Paul Ratha Yem
- Beginning balance: $4,172
- Amount raised: $6,316
- Amount spent: $8,973
- Cash on hand: $1,515
This coming Wednesday, February 7, 2024, at 4 p.m. at UMass Lowell’s Coburn Hall, Room 255, Charlie Gargiulo will speak about his memoir, Legends of Little Canada” and about his life of community activism. The event, which is part of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Dean’s Speaker Series, is free and open to the public.
Here’s a link to the review of Charlie’s book that I wrote last September.