Left In Lowell

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February 9, 2014

Panic over TEH SEX!

by at 9:55 am.

On further examination of the agenda for Tuesday, one that appears to be fairly innocuous is this:

C. Mercier – Req. City Mgr. have proper department provide a report as to current status and future proposed plans for Mill #5 building on Jackson St. located in the Hamilton Canal District.

Though usually anything like this brought up by Rita Mercier has some sort of “someone called me and complained” attached to it, it seems like a good discussion we should have, as Mill No 5 comes online and artists, craftspeople, and businesses move in and open up shop.

However, the most likely explanation for this motion from Rita is that someone did call her and complain, given what is happening behind the scenes. I happen to know the story, so I thought I would elucidate. You see, this entire motion is most likely all about…”TEH SEX.”

The back history is this: Mill No 5 is soon to go in front of the ZBA for a special permit to allow massage parlors in their building. My understanding is that there’s at least one tenant lined up who wants to offer those services there. Now, next to where Mill No 5 is being created, there are condos which were developed by the same owners (Lichoulas). There is, apparently, a couple of people who live in the condos who have convinced themselves, apropos of nothing and without any evidence, that said massage parlors are not just for relaxing massages…but you know, wink wink, one of those types of establishments. (Dick Howe also believes this motion is likely made on behalf of this complaint in his weekly review.)

It’s patently ridiculous, but these people are going around in a panic, claiming that there will be happy ending massages, a porno theatre (Mill No 5 is building out a 200-seat theatre, which is not a porno theatre, but an arts/indy theatre) and that the neighborhood will become some sort of Red Light district. They have gone to all the neighbors, surrounding businesses, to the ZBA and to City Councilors with their claim.

Personally, I think bringing this motion forward (I’m 99.9% sure these people talked to Rita and this is why this is on the agenda) makes Rita Mercier look like a fool - because with a little research, or perhaps talking to the developer, other residents of that building, or to Bernie Lynch’s office or DPD, or heck, the ZBA, Rita could have realized that this zOMG SEX PARLOR madness is the brainchild of fringe type people who are (at best) making assumptions with zero evidence. Look, I’m all for citizen engagement, but if every crank or crazy in the city with some loony opposition to something that will never exist got the ear of the Council, all we’d be doing is fielding these types of motions all night, every week.

January 30, 2014

Endangering City Taxpayer Money

by at 9:56 am.

So another interesting exchange at Tuesday’s Council meeting took place because of this item: “Misc. – Request by Grand Manor Condominium Assoc. to address Council regarding Grand Manor Condominiums.”

The story behind this is pretty awful. No one is quite sure if the developer or the land owner who sold the land knew that it was the site of an old city dump - but the condo owners who bought into the property are now stuck with a terrible situation for which they had no disclosure. Their property values plummeted, and some of the buyers bailed out and foreclosed rather than stick around for what turned out to be a bad investment. The condo association is in litigation with the city of Lowell over mitigation and it has yet to be resolved. Since any citizen can petition the Council on any issue, there were a couple of speakers who wanted to bring their grievance up, and really, no matter if anyone stalling or if there’s just honest disagreement or unavoidable delay, who can blame them?

However, as it is active litigation, the Council is limited as to what it can say in open session. Any words from City officials in any capacity can be used against the city in court, weakening the case being argued on behalf of taxpayers. It’s not so much a lack of sympathy with these residents’ plight as just, good lawyering. And since this is not Rita Mercier’s first rodeo, you’d think she’d know this…but she had to be shut down, hard, twice, by the City Solicitor. (What a thankless job that is…) We start with a bit from the first speaker from the condo association and then the Council. Commentary included in the video. Watch:

(Side note: Let’s just say we chuck that five minute rule everyone keeps talking about…The first speaker got 12 minutes…)

January 29, 2014

We Have a Winner!

by at 5:09 pm.

So we have a winner this week in the Blowup of the Week contest. Congratulations, joe from lowell! I have deemed the portrait guidelines motion the most explosive. Of course, it’s never as you expect it…the blowup was preempted by Alison Laraba’s speech, which was stunning (clip later). By the time Rita Mercier got to speak on her own motion it was like a predictable dénouement. Then she was bookended by a citizen speaker, Aleks Tugbiyele, who’d registered to speak on the motion, and her speech was diplomatic but emphatic. But, it was the most explosive discussion of the evening.

Since it was probably one of the more obvious potential blowups of the week, I’m calling this a Level One prize, on a scale of 1-3. (Maybe somewhere between 1 and 2 because it amuses me - so, not too much more complex than Monty the Cephalopod.) So, “joe from lowell,” if you want to send me a preference for animal, or need some help deciding (I can send you links to some relevant patterns), you can email me direct (lynne at leftinlowell.com) or leave a comment. :)

Here’s the clip of Rita and the subsequent discussion, though it’s out of order, since the speech by Alison came before and Aleks Tugbiyele came right after her…I’ll add those clips, they’re both very worth watching. But here’s the actual blowup, now complete with cheesy special effects intro! (Don’t ever give me free software downloads to play with. It’s a bad idea.)

One thing you can always predict: Rita Mercier hates Patrick Murphy, and grudges are her speciality. (Witness poor Salmira last week, and Rita’s statements on the radio on Monday.)

On establishing guidelines for mayoral portraits going forward, how dictatorial are we gonna go? “You must sit with your hands in your lap, with your face three-quarters turned from the lens of the camera, with a flag lapel pin on your jacket…for women, if we ever have another female mayor ever again, you must wear a knee-length or longer skirt and matching suit jacket…you may wear a frilly blouse underneath said jacket, but whoa to you if it includes any lace…”

Seriously. And also, raise your hand if you think Mercier or Elliott gives a real care about this actual issue - aside from the burning of the former Mayor?

But other than this little distraction, and Rita’s goofup on the lawsuit pending in front of the city (also going to make a clip of that) did it seem to you guys that there was a certain level of better behavior during this meeting? Let’s hope that lasts. Not holding my breath…

OK, for color…and because it was EPIC…here’s Alison Laraba on her request to speak before Council. Alison, for those who are new, was a School Committee member a few years back.

Here’s Aleks Tugbiyele’s speech, which came after Rita spoke on her motion (sorry Aleks, you’re getting that YouTube fame!):

January 28, 2014

Kabuki Open Thread

by at 5:38 pm.

Herein you can discuss, in less than an hour, the goings-on of tonight’s City Council meeting.

Also, make your cases for BotW! I’ll be watching and pick “the worst” blowup, and hopefully we’ll have a winner this week! Lots of great guesses on the other thread. If you haven’t yet made a guess, check out what has already been taken for guesses and then make your own! (Remember, one person per item or subject!) You could win a cute animal friend with whom to watch future City Council meetings!

(PS - by the way, the term Kabuki is an old name Jack used to call CC meetings…as in, Japanese Kabuki theatre.)

January 27, 2014

Rita Mercier’s True Motives

by at 8:40 pm.

You might recall that I posted a long, video-enriched post recently about last week’s meeting and the scuttling of one appointment, that of Salmira Mitchell, and the passage of the other two. At the time, Rita tried (via an illegal motion) to say she was for shutting down all appointments by the outgoing City Manager:

But then went on, after being told she couldn’t make a brand new motion, to propose tabling Mitchell’s appointment to the library board. That passed 5-4. Right afterwards, they passed the next two appointments, 9-0 and 8-1.

Now, given that Mercier stated on the floor that her reason for tabling/opposing appointments was general (the outgoing CM should not appoint) and then subsequently voting to allow the other two appointments requiring Council approval, the only conclusion that can be reached is what Dick Howe wrote - that this was the work of vindictive bullies. Because the very sweet and civic-minded Salmira is married to the sometimes-acerbic civic-minded blogger Jack Mitchell. (more…)

BotW: Deja Vu All Over Again

by at 4:22 pm.

All right, due to good life stuff taking up space, I didn’t get a chance to post this yesterday or this morning. This time, for the Blowup of the Week game, I’m going to not guess. That way, there’s more of a chance of someone winning the prize. Here’s this week’s agenda document!

I’m going further stipulate, the more obvious your guess, the smaller the prize. So, if you pick something off the agenda that doesn’t seem as likely or obvious, if a Blowup happens, you’ll win bigger! What will you win, you ask? I shared this on Facebook last week, but posting images on FB is so much easier I got lazy on the post. But…the prize is this: an amigurumi of your choice. If you picked something obvious, it must be a simple amigurumi that I can do really fast. (See below). If you pick something which appears so uncontroversial that no one would EVER suspect it would become a Blowup of the Week, but it explodes into BotW-worthy, then you get something much more complex. I’m the final arbiter of the various levels, since I have to do the work. :)

So, meet Monty. He’s my little amigurumi cephalopod, and my personal mascot. He is, obviously, not up for a prize, but another mini octopus of your choice is possible (from a range of colors), or another animal whose construction is about that simple, if the BotW is one that was obvious. (Other than the eyes and embroidered mouth, I could do up one of these in about 1/2 an hour or less.)

little octopus amigurumi

Here’s the most complex amigurumi I’ve made, this one was for a friend of mine (you might recognize the character). This took took me a number of hours.

Brian Griffin amigurumi

That at least gives you a range. :) I’m probably not offering Brian-Griffin-level crafting for this contest, but you can see what can be accomplished with a crochet needle and some yarn. I’ve done a number of other animals too.

That said, go check the agenda and make your guess! Has to be in by 6:30pm tomorrow (Tuesday)! One guess per person, and only one person can grab any one item. And you can email me a guess if you wish to remain even more anonymous (I’ll announce in comments if someone guesses a specific item and it’s no longer available.) I’ve cut and pasted the agenda in the second half of this post. (more…)

January 10, 2014

Rita Demonstrates the Need for the Establishment Clause

by at 11:17 pm.

As we all know by now, besides the other big shoe that dropped Tuesday night at City Council, there was also a travesty of Constitutional proportions, where one religion got to spend nearly an hour proselytizing on the Council floor during our city government meeting.

For those who watched, it was a special treat, as citizen speakers preached about Christianity (including some very, er, interesting takes on history, Star Wars, and immaculate conception) during our governmental meeting. I won’t go into those speakers any further, but if you really want to clench your teeth through the rambling, utterly incomprehensible arguments, I included a full video cut of the “manger debate,” from suspension of the rules to roll call, at the end of this post.

The winner of the night, however, had to be Councilor Rita Mercier. I’ve taken the liberty to slice together some of the more interesting parts from her apparently-prepared speech. There can be no clearer example of why our Founders went out of their way to keep religion out of the Constitution.

If the purpose of constitutional separation of church and state is to not elevate any one religion or sect over any other (or over nonreligion)…in other words, to essentially remain neutral, last Tuesday’s meeting failed that test entirely, and not just because of the now-non-denominational Christian prayer that is recited by the Mayor at the beginning of every meeting. A person who knew nothing about our country or our city, after watching that meeting, would be left with the impression of a specific religion is elevated here, above all others.

Speaking of our “nondenominational” prayer, this video below is of the recitation of such at the beginning of the same Council meeting last Tuesday. And of course, this prayer, heavy with the mention of a deity, replaced the Catholic Lord’s Prayer the Council used to recite at every meeting for decades. I wrote about this back in 2006 when an interfaith group requested the Council change the Lord’s Prayer to something more equitable (provided you still thought some sort of prayer was a good idea). What we ended up with in 2007 was what you see in the video below - a monotheistic, rather Christian-ish prayer to God. (So, not good for Hindus, most Buddhists, atheists…) I have no doubt that this might be the next lawsuit, given how much attention this manger debate might draw to our city over the Establishment clause.

And finally, I’ve put the full manger debate (all 40 minutes of it) up on YouTube for your convenience (or torment, perhaps eternal), including the aforementioned citizens who were…really enthused about Jesus.

Edit: If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend reading through Dick Howe’s excellent synopsis, and also his post on the reactions of a class of UML students who were there that night.

Notoriety!

by at 9:03 pm.

Well, thanks to the 40 minute debate and Council vote to put baby Jesus back on our civic lawn, so to speak, Lowell’s city council meeting has now reached a nationally read atheist blog. I said on Tuesday night that all CC. Mercier was going to do was bring attention to the unconstitutionality of all the religion in our city meetings and at city hall - resulting in more of a chance to waste our taxpayer dollars on fighting that lawsuit (and others - official council prayer, anyone?) she wanted to have us pay for (and lose).

“Were we afraid of being sued?” Mercier said. “Because if we were, this is one lawsuit I would have no objection to fight all the way.”

Famous last words of elected officials spending other people’s money. She should ask the Dover school board how that attitude worked out for them.

And I will also say that while Rita said “let them all come!” talking about menorahs and such, do you really think she’ll have such an equitable reaction if something like this is placed next to the manger next year? Because this public hissy fit over religion on our Council floor, like the inevitable lawsuit, makes it more likely someone will ask to do it.

Now, Ed Brayton merely found the news the Lowell Sun posted. What kind of reaction will the secular humanist community have to the actual rantings of the several people over the course of the discussion, do you think? Oh wait. I’m editing that video as we speak.

Rita just landed us in a heap of trouble. *shakes head*

Other Departures

by at 3:21 pm.

Jen Myers on Facebook just announced, Assistant CM and head of DPD Adam Baacke is leaving at the end of February to become the Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell.

This comes on the heels of the announcement that our City Auditor, Sheryl Wright, will retire, losing our CFO Tom Moses to Hudson, MA, and of course, Bernie Lynch announcing his 60-day notice.

All I can say is, we can’t possibly survive going forward without hiring a stellar, professional City Manager, because this team is leaving behind very, very big shoes to fill.

At least one politician is supposedly taking himself out of the running, which is encouraging. I think Panagiotakos staying out of it will encourage more actual professional managers with a background and education in municipal management than if Pangy put his resume in the mix. Because it’s obvious that he’d be a frontrunner if he did, and so who in their right mind would bother in that case? This is the problem with elected officials who seem to make up their minds before they have all the facts. It stifles all the good that can come when we keep an actual open mind. An open mind got us this team, headed by Bernie, who turned an impending fiscal disaster into what we have today - a good free cash account, and developers and business who are interested in developing and relocating here.

Best of luck, really and truly, to Adam, Sheryl, Tom, even though he’s already gone, and Bernie. A heartfelt thanks for all you’ve done here.

Update: And also, I am told Senior Planner Aaron Clause is also leaving. Best wishes to him as well.

January 8, 2014

Ask Yourself: Who Wins?

by at 10:15 am.

All right, we now know the shape of this new landscape, or at least its beginnings. But how did we get here? To a lot of people, the results of the last local election are inexplicable. So I’m here to explain things.

To do this - indulge me - we have to go back a little ways. For those who weren’t living here then (you nascent blow-ins!), this will be useful, for the rest of us, a trip down memory lane…

Our previous City Manager before Lynch, one John F. Cox, a man I have thankfully not had to mention much in the last several years, was a man selected for the position in 2000 based on his connections. He certainly wasn’t qualified - he was a disgraced former state Representative for a decade or so up until the early 90s, when he was slapped with infractions by the Ethics Commission for accepting lobbyist gifts, and he quietly decided not to run again after that. In 2000, the City Council in its wisdom decided that this was pedigree for managing the city, despite the fact…he’s a lawyer and lobbyist (yes, that too), not a muni manager. Not to mention, ethically challenged.

Cox’s tenure was rife with incompetence and graft. We found out about a lot after the fact, and he left a mess. I sincerely think he was just not up to the job. His budgets were a travesty (and left us in a hole we didn’t even know about until after he left). There was that missing money from the Stoklosa School build (we still don’t know who cashed that check for classrooms that were never built, do we?). He also was the sort of guy who hired friends who weren’t qualified for city jobs, gave choice raises (I saw a list of 7-10% raises he gave to people he had personal connections to as he walked out the door in 2006) and generally, buttered up the union rank and file (often with favorable contracts at the expense of our taxpayer dollar). They loved him.

After the election of George Ramirez in 2005, a man who ran on ousting Cox, a new majority was formed (including a new Mayor Bill Martin, Kevin Broderick, and then-Councilor Eileen Donoghue). They quietly told Cox to leave or they’d vote him out. I don’t know what they were hoping, but I got a hold of the news, and I wasn’t interested in having Mr. Cox go quietly into that good night. Oh no, I wanted an accounting of his tenure, and people had a right to know. The Sun leadership (*ahemCampyahem*) got really mad at me - they knew the information and were sitting on it. Cox was informed this on a Friday afternoon right before a planned two week vacation, maybe to give him time to contemplate, I don’t know. It was early in the new Council’s term, and that could have been coincidence.

While Cox was out of town, a PAC formed. They called themselves the People for Lowell PAC. It really was the People for John Cox PAC, though, and there were a lot of city union folks involved. They started the unfortunately named “I’m for Cox” campaign (read the phrase aloud if you don’t get the unfortunate part) with bumper stickers, flyers, and big signs in some business windows. It was, essentially, a political-style campaign to “save” what is supposed to be a technocratic position.

Hence you can see the union connection here.

Cox decides to resign, effective (if I recall) June 2006, and the hunt is on for a replacement. When Bernie Lynch was interviewed and hired in the summer of 2006, he brought to light things Cox had literally been hiding. Like two audit request letters from the state Department of Revenue. The DoR was uneasy about the state of Lowell’s finances, lack of free cash (turns out, it was in the negative). Lynch also began to slowly turn over and clean out the worst of the graft hires in city government. This of course angered a certain segment of the union folks, because they little liked being held accountable for their jobs, which had been pretty cushy up til then. (You should hear the stories I’ve heard. Seriously. It’s bad.)

There are a lot of great city employees - and a lot of them like working for Lynch - but also a lot of grumbling, which turned to hatred over the last 7 years. Lynch shunted Cox’s assistant City Manager TJ McCarthy sideways, to head the DPW in what appeared on paper not to be a demotion, but really was. (McCarthy eventually moved on.) McCarthy’s city worker buddies were riled about that one. I’m sure they feel he was mistreated. Lynch then elevated Baacke, a city planner dept head, to Assistant CM, and more recently, put the inspectional services (another bad actor in the city) into Baacke’s care. Of course, it was to “streamline” the services - but really, we all know, it was to clean up its act. Anger and hate do not begin to describe what some people who work for the city feel about Bernie.

Let me explain this another way. I once had a teenage acquaintance whose mother wanted badly to be friends with her daughter. Partly to make up for the harshness of the other parent, which is understandable. At 16, this girl got the old family car, with its gas, registration, and repairs all paid for by her mother. Her mother found out later, that this girl was getting into drinking. She never took the car keys away - not as punishment, not even for the girl’s own safety. It’s not that this mom wanted bad consequences for her kid. It’s just that she was incapable of saying no to her, because she wanted her daughter as her friend. Never mind that she was going down an irresponsible path that did lead her into far worse places later on.

Cox is the non-disciplining mother. Lynch is the guy who finally took the keys away from the irresponsible. And like petulant teenagers in a rage, they hated him for it.

There have been attempts ever since to oust Lynch. In 2007, the next election, Cox allies Kazanjian and Lenzi ran and won - with union muster, and money…lots of it. If I remember, Kazanjian spent over $70,000, the most anyone has ever spent by far for a Council election here. Lenzi wasn’t far behind at around $40-50,000. The usual for a first time candidate is less than $10,000 generally!

Alas, they couldn’t get rid of Lynch. Partly because he was under contract and the terms took him past the next election. Partly because Lynch was actually quite popular outside of the disgruntled circles of city government. Lenzi, who literally accomplished nothing of note at all while a Councilor (go check his lack of motions! except the one which put the Council on an every other week schedule…governatin’ is hard work!), did not run again. Kazanjian lost, hoisted on the petard of his own scandals during his tenure as Councilor. (He failed to realize he’d get a lot more scrutiny as an elected official than he ever got on the Lowell Zoning Board.) In case you’re curious, Dick has a great post on 2009’s election.

In 2009 we got Franky Descoteaux, Joe Mendonca, and Patrick Murphy. A clear majority for professional city government and fact-based policy. Disgruntles called them a “rubber stamp” - as if Murphy was ever anyone’s rubber stamp. A lot got done with this crew. In 2011, we got the last crop of Councilors (well, Broderick won, but resigned mid term, so that brought in John Leahy). That brings us up to date.

So who are Corey Belanger and Dan Rourke? Belanger ran in 2011 and came in #14 of 17 candidates, not a stellar placing. But just over 200 votes behind #9, because - well, the vote totals are so darn tiny in local elections. Rourke was of course a first time candidate in 2013.

In 2013, Rourke placed #4, and Belanger a pretty safe #7. So what happened? Well, who do you think was motivated to get out the vote? Who do you think beat down the doors as hard, or harder, than the very hard work Stacie Hargis’ or Derek Mitchell’s campaigns did? The disgruntled city unions, of course.

This isn’t hearsay, I’ve talked to people who have first hand knowledge. When you have as tiny a percentage of the registered voters show up in local elections as Lowell does, a little anger goes a long way. A lot of anger changes everything. And while the rest of Lowell was very excited about Derek and Stacie, fresh faces who obviously have a great deal to offer, and the smarts to get it done, there is a segment of Lowell who hates Bernie so much they were motivated even more. I don’t like saying this, but positive emotions like hope and change don’t motivate like negative ones do. Heck, this blog was started in 2005 because of the abuses I’d seen in local government with John Cox at the helm, and I made no secret of this.

So who wins now that Bernie leaves? The disgruntled city union folks who feel like they would have gotten a way better deal with Cox had he stayed (of course, by now, we’d have been under state receivership like Springfield was), giving them and their relatives cush jobs and raises, than they got with the hard-nosed Lynch who treated his job - shock of shocks - as being the guy negotiating on behalf of citizens and taxpayers of Lowell. It wasn’t like Lynch gave nothing to the unions. He negotiated in good faith. But he didn’t give them enough. He changed their - gasp - plush health benefits to another plush benefit plan! And woe of woes, in a terrible downturn with Local Aid money frozen, he didn’t give them 3% annual raises!

Now, I’m a pro-union sort of gal. I believe in the right to organize, for workers to get their fair share. I think the decline in the American median wage has a lot to do with the loss of worker negotiation power, due to the decline of unions. But we can’t pretend unions aren’t bad actors from time to time. And when you have years of hiring abuses like we’ve seen at both the local and the state level (ask me about Panagiotakos and the pay-to-play scandal, sometime, I think we ought to be airing that out soon), the union becomes a protection racket like no other. I’ve often said that the Lowell GOB (Good Ol Boy for newbies) network in Lowell acts an awful lot like a mini mafia.

After all, there is a fine line between a union fighting for better wages and working conditions, and Jimmy Hoffa. And here endeth the tale.

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