Lowell Politics Newsletter: May 19, 2024

My newsletter of last Sunday focused exclusively on the city’s 1989 settlement of the civil rights lawsuit brought against it by parents of minority students in the Lowell Public Schools, so this week’s edition has two Lowell City Council meetings to cover. Both were concise with no major controversies. Here’s what was covered:

Career Center Lease – Councilors authorized the city manager to execute a five-year lease for 7,677 square feet of office space in the Wannalancit Mills Complex for the MassHire Young Adult Career Center section of the Lowell Career Center (which remains at the corner of Merrimack and John streets in the “Cherry and Webb” building). The annual rent for the new space is $149,701 with the lease commencing on August 1, 2024. Councilors had a few questions about parking for employees and clients, but the representatives of the Career Center assured councilors that parking was sufficient. Councilors were also pleased that the lease specified in detail the landlord’s responsibilities for maintenance and janitorial services (presumably in contrast to the nebulous state of those things in the lease of the Senior Center). Finally, councilors were pleased that this part of the Career Center will be in the midst of the UMass Lowell LINC development and the enhanced opportunities that proximity should provide to the Center’s clients.

Deputy Chief Information Officer – A proposed ordinance change that would create the position of Deputy Chief Information Officer inside the MIS Department came before the council. It was referred to a public hearing on May 21, 2024. With the city still feeling the effects of last year’s cyberattack, putting more professional resources into the MIS Department seems like a good idea. Beyond that, information technology will only play a larger role in city operations in the future, particularly as artificial intelligence becomes more widely used, something that is inevitable. However, equally important to having sufficient trained IT professionals is raising the technologic aptitude of every employee in the city. Last year the city made a substantial commitment to DEI by having all senior managers participate in formal training programs at Middlesex Community College. A comparable undertaking addressing IT skills and training (for non-IT personnel) would likely result in a more efficient workforce.

Illegal Dumping – Many parts of the city are plagued by ongoing illegal dumping. Councilors have latched onto surveillance cameras as a way to address this problem. While recorded video certainly makes identifying and prosecuting perpetrators easier, how much of a deterrent the presence of cameras would be is another matter. If the cameras are hidden, they would not be a deterrent, yet if the cameras are open and obvious, the perpetrators would just dump elsewhere. I’m all for cameras as a tool in this fight, but they are not the solution. Councilor Corey Robinson alluded to that when he suggested creating a site at which things could be dumped legally as a way to lessen the need to dump things illegally, although I’m not sure how feasible something like that would be. Many of us are old enough to remember a time when you could leave anything short of nuclear waste on the curb and have it picked up and disposed of for free. We’re in a whole different world now. For example, before buying anything new for my home, my first thought is “how will I get rid of the thing this will replace?” The answer to that is usually quite elusive. The city’s recycling office has some good information on its webpage but it seems more active educational efforts are needed.

Council Salaries – There’s an elementary rule that a person who works for a governmental entity may only receive one salary from that entity. Consequently, a city councilor who is employed by the city of Lowell cannot receive the salary of a city councilor in addition to the salary from their primary job. Currently, this affects two councilors: John Descoteaux, who works for the Lowell School Department; and Erik Gitschier, who works for the Vocational High School (which is funded in part by the city and thus falls within this rule).  While everyone accepts this rule (more or less), there is a sentiment that councilors in this position should be able to donate their un-received salary to a charitable entity of their choosing. At the May 7 meeting, Councilor Robinson asked for a report on the legality of doing that and, since the current answer is, “you can’t”, how to go about changing the rules to permit it.

I’ve not done a deep dive on the law in this area but as a general legal principle, if you control the disposition of property, you control the property in an ownership sense, so I think it unlikely that there is either a legal way to do what is proposed or a way to change the law to permit it. Of course, Councilor Rita Mercier teased us by claiming this was a case of selective enforcement since she knows of prior instances of salaries being diverted by the person unable to legally receive the salary. She didn’t name names which was probably wise since the statute of limitations may not have run.

A more interesting issue to me is the number of councilors who hold full time jobs with governmental entities. I haven’t confirmed this so, like Councilor Mercier, I won’t name names, but off the top of my head, I count six of eleven councilors whose primary employment is with municipal or state government. My sense is that the number of government employees serving as councilors now is much higher percentage-wise than has ever been the case.

There is nothing illegal or unethical about people who work for government during the day also holding elective office, but I do think having government employees as a majority of the city council skews the mindset of the council in a certain way. To illustrate my point, think about the jury in a criminal trial. The main reason you have twelve jurors is to bring a mix of people from different backgrounds and life experiences together to decide the case. That diversity of background helps prevent a type of “group think” that might skew a verdict one way or the other. In the same way, a city council would work best when its members brought a diversity of education, training, experience and backgrounds to their deliberative process. But more on this in a future edition . . .

May 14, 2024 City Council meeting – Although the May 14 meeting lasted almost twice as long as the one on May 7, there was less to report on in the longer meeting. Perhaps having three members absent contributed to that. With Mayor Dan Rourke among those absent, Vice Chair Paul Ratha Yem had his first opportunity to chair an entire council meeting. For a first timer, he moved the meeting along smoothly without any significant procedural hiccups.

Councilors heard from a resident who related her unfortunate experience of having her young child bitten by a neighbor’s dog then, when she contacted the city’s Animal Control office about the process of having a dog deemed dangerous, being told that the process was unclear. In the discussion that followed, it seemed that the city does have a set procedure for this and that the issue in this case is to ensure that whoever is answering the phone on the city-side be aware of that procedure and be able to communicate it clearly to callers.

Another issue that took a chunk of time related to the installation of water bottle filling stations at the Reilly School. Even though these devices are fixtures that become permanent parts of city-owned and maintained buildings, the devices were purchased by the school department and installed by private contractors hired by the school department. Councilor Gitschier was concerned that the city’s public works department was not involved in this project since DPW employees will be charged with repairing these devices. Because of that responsibility, DPW should have had some input into what was installed and how it was done. The explanation for why that was not the case was that the devices and cost of installation came from pandemic relief funds available to the school department. Given the chaos that has engulfed the school department’s purchasing process as evidenced by the recurring “bad bills” discussions, the fact that the devices were acquired and installed seems like a major accomplishment although there’s always room for improvement.

St. Jeanne d’Arc School – The Lowell Sun reported this week that the city has agreed to purchase the former St. Jeanne d’Arc School on Dracut Street in Pawtucketville for $2.4 million. The school closed in 2023 after more than 70 years of use as a parochial school. In a unique financing arrangement, the purchase price will be paid from the same school department pandemic relief funds that were used to purchase the water stations at the Reilly School, but because this purchase involves real estate, title to the property will vest in the city with the school department being a tenant. The new facility will be used as a dedicated Special Needs School although it will take two years to perform the renovations and upgrades, including the installation of an elevator, needed to make the building comply with current regulations.

In an OpEd in the Sun on May 16, Mayor Dan Rourke made a strong argument in support of this plan. Here is some of what Rourke wrote:

This would be a historic collaboration setting the stage for future projects and endeavors between the City and School Department for the good of all Lowellians.

By transforming the Ste. Jeanne d’Arc School into a special needs institution, Lowell has the chance to create a lasting legacy of inclusivity and support. This initiative sends a powerful message that every child is valued and deserving of a quality education. It underscores our commitment to building a community where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

It is my firm belief that the purchase of the former Ste. Jeanne d’Arc School for conversion into a special needs school represents a visionary and necessary step for the City of Lowell and the Lowell Public School Department. It addresses an urgent need, aligns with educational goals of equity and inclusion, and exemplifies the power of collaboration between public institutions. By seizing this opportunity, we can create a transformative education environment that empowers our special needs students, enriches our community and sets a precedent for future initiatives. Let us come together to invest in this vital project and build a brighter, more inclusive future for all of Lowell’s children.

I commend Rourke for publishing this piece. It’s important for people to know the motives behind this effort. However, the execution of this plan is critical to its success. For example, for most of human existence, those with special needs were shunted away and kept isolated from the rest of society with devastating effects. Only in the past half century has a more enlightened approach emerged that seeks to integrate those with special needs into society, including in mainstream school settings. Consequently, it might seem that creating a dedicated special needs school would be a step backwards by reverting to segregated settings, but this is where the execution of the plan is critical. There are some individuals with such profound physical and mental challenges that a separate setting with highly skilled and specialized care is the best solution. In Lowell right now, students in that category are placed in outside facilities at enormous cost to the city. Bringing those advanced facilities into the city – if done correctly – can be more efficient cost-wise but also would provide a setting closer to home for the individuals receiving services. This is something that School Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr vigorously pursued back in the early 2000s. While that earlier effort may have achieved short-term success, it was not permanent. Consequently, this proposal seems like a wise attempt to revive a good idea from 20 years ago.

Beyond the specific special needs component of this proposal, the amount of cooperation between the city side and the school side of government to make this happen is just astounding (in a very positive way). Not since Superintendent George Tsapatsaris and City Manager Jim Campbell worked hand-in-hand to implement the school desegregation settlement and then launch the mammoth new school construction program in the late 1980s/early 1990s has there been this level of accomplishment-yielding cooperation between the two sides of city government in Lowell. Hopefully it will continue.


This past Friday, the law library in the Cornelius Kiernan Justice Center was formally dedicated in honor of the late Daniel P. Leahy, a longtime Lowell lawyer who also served as a State Senator and a City Councilor. Dan was also the father of current Councilor John Leahy. Many members of the extended Leahy family, friends of Dan, and elected officials were present for the ceremony.


Next Saturday, May 25, 2024, I will lead a 90-minute walking tour of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. The tour will begin at 10am from the Lowell National Park visitor center at 246 Market Street and is offered in partnership with the National Park. The focus of the tour will be the history of the site which I’ve called “the Silicon Valley of 19th Century America” although we will also touch on recent accomplishments and future plans for the district. The tour is free and requires no advance registration.

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