Left In Lowell

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April 16, 2014

Game of Postpones

by at 10:39 am.

Who here is a fan of the HBO series, Game of Thrones? The world of the books/series revolves around the utter instability and chaos, war, and madness that is brought about by Westeros’ sudden and not-quite-accidental regime change. King Baratheon might not have been the smartest or the best king ever, but his demise heralds the end of the relative peace of the Seven Kingdoms, with his queen’s non-Baratheon bastard children vying with other contenders for the Iron Throne, and the whole countryside erupting in war. Other families take advantage of the chaos to carve out and reclaim their little kingdoms which had been absorbed long ago. Still others just like to party by judicious use of castration and torture, mostly for fun.

Well, folks, take away the castration and violence (but not the drinking) and you have Lowell city politics right now.

Every decision made in the last seven years by past City Councils and the former CM is up for grabs, apparently. No matter how stringent the public involvement in deciding on plans for various projects in the city, be that the very preliminary, not-our-goddamned-decision high school reno or rebuild, or the much-lauded plans for the historic South Common, or any Master Plan element of bike paths or city street realignment or other projects already in the works.

I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if this City Council wanted a redo on the Appleton Mill artist lofts or the Early garage. I mean, hey, we could tear down or repurpose those things and hand them over to your buddies, right?

Supposedly, we have high level experts on the Council now on economic development. What I want to know, is how running a dive bar makes one qualified to build a high school? Or decide that street parking should have less turnover by not enforcing the meters? To me, every word that comes out of Corey Belanger’s mouth showcases a total and absolute lack of understanding of economic development and municipal management. Far be it for experts to have an opinion; Corey is on the job now, so Lowell is gonna make a turnaround. A renaissance. All of the downtown vacancies will be filled by the time his first term is over!

Or, wait. Businesses - small ones, and large ones - like stability when they make their business decisions. They like to know that the plans that were carefully made by transparent and open means, by a crew of amazing (now mostly fled) Planning and Development officials, will be carried out in a timely fashion. It’s no big secret that a lot of plans in Lowell were on hold during the Cox era and were put back on the front burner by the Lynch administration. Now, we’re going to reverse years worth of planning, public participation, and decision making because Corey Belanger wasn’t fucking paying attention during all of that?

Plans can change. Don’t get me wrong. We should be flexible. And I do not have a horse in the very silly race about the high school staying in or moving from downtown. There are merits on both sides. However, my understanding of the process as outlined by a state agency called Massachusetts School Building Authority is that they are the entity that gets to weigh all the factors. What the local idiots on Council can do, by waffling, is take us off the shortlist, which we cannot afford. The high school is in need of either rebuilding or renovating, soon. And “soon” is relative, since getting on the MSBA’s short list means it’ll still take years to go through final decision making. And oh yeah, they, not us, make that final determination about renovation vs. building a new building elsewhere. Based - GASP! - NOT on whatever private developer wants to build something (god knows what, they have yet to say) on the existing high school site, BUT…based on what is best for the students and their education.

I know, shocking.

So who wins in this Game of Postpones? Well, not the students, if Corey Belanger gets his way as an apparently honorary member of the School Committee and of the MSBA. PS - apparently, Mistah Mayah also has an extremely short memory, since all of this planning and participation and discussion happened while he was a City Councilor. So, either he’s dumb and doesn’t remember, or he never really paid any attention to what was going on in the city for the last seven years. Neither explanation is encouraging.

March 19, 2014

WaPo Finds Lowell

by at 3:46 pm.

Nice little write up in the Lifestyle - Food section of the Washington Post website. I found it via Facebook. It serves up a taste of Little Cambodia!

Several locations are mentioned, which is really awesome. Let’s bring in the food adventurers! :)

Sacred Golden Cows

by at 7:19 am.

I’ve long held the opinion that the so-called Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is a somewhat useless, taxpayer-sucking organization. I’ve gotten to that place by talking a lot to very smart people who are in the position to know better than me.

This is no knock on marketing, of course. Hey, I’m in the web and graphic design business after all. I know marketing works. And we need to develop great events, and market them, bringing people in from outside the city to spend money. Changing a decades-long perception about Lowell is no small feat, and I think we ought to spend some minor amount of money on it; the economic benefits of that are clear. I just do not see that there has been even a dollar of economic activity for every dollar spent on the CVB (in other words, not even sure if we’re breaking even). I think it’s a big waste of money. Could the CVB be a resource? Sure, if it were well run, it might be. But it’s not. I don’t see a return for the city from all the taxpayer dollars spent on that organization. It is, however, run by a well-connected person who has friends on City Council.

Now, I don’t know if the restauranteurs that Jack quotes from old articles about the CVB and the local option meals tax revenue are merely short-sighted, or if they are alyoop-ing the CVB for other reasons, but regardless, I wanted to bring this up because we all know the City Council will not have the debate about whether or not the CVB is actually a good, dollar-for-dollar investment for the city. I mean, when the CVB posts a Facebook photo of the Tyngsboro bridge with the line, “Good morning Lowell!” you have to question the validity of the entire operation. Also, they’ve been part and parcel of the gravy train that was Winterfest; with that fundraising money flowing through the CVB as the “fiscal agent,” they get matching funds from the state.

Keep in mind, that out of the 16 Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus in the state, Lowell is the only city or town to subsidize a CVB directly with money from its own city budget. This has been brought up before under Bernie Lynch, but I know a lot of City Councilors have notoriously short memories.

We have no marketing data to actually measure in any way what the dollar value the CVB brings the city for its contribution as far as I know. Metrics? Pshaw!

Of course, Rita et pals didn’t like the reductions in Bernie’s budgets for what the city gave to the CVB, so expect Lynch’s previous CVB budgetary reduction to a yearly $25K to to be reversed. Of course, Lynch wanted it eliminated but the hue and outcry of the friends of CVB head Deb Belanger was hot and furious - which is one way to be sure this is a GOB move and not a smart one. Bernie was no dummy about where to invest our taxpayer dollars, but the City Council certainly is.

Good money thrown after bad…”that’s a bad way to fly.”

February 10, 2014

A Happy Ending

by at 9:09 pm.

Normally I would say that I watched the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting tonight so you wouldn’t have to, but…if you didn’t see it, you missed out on a hell of a lot of entertainment value. I’m speaking, of course, of the massage special permit hearing for Mill No 5.

It started out with Jim Lichoulas speaking as the developer of the building. You could feel his frustration with the opposition, when he talked about how Randy Mathieu [note: name corrected] had thrown around words like “happy endings” and “human trafficking” in regards to Mill No 5 and massage tenants. Later, Randy, speaking in opposition, claimed Lichoulas was exaggerating. It was not long after that that Lichoulas’ partner spoke, and read an email from Randy with those exact accusations in it. Pure, classic political entertainment.

Couple that with Councilor Rita Mercier who spoke, confused about whether or not she was in opposition or whether or not she could produce a motion…well, I hope to get video to you soon.

As for Mercier’s time at the podium, I will say this: her confusion about whether to be in opposition stemmed from talking to people at the meeting and getting that other side of the story. You know, the side which wasn’t throwing around baseless accusations. Something she apparently did not do before putting a motion on the agenda for the Council meeting tomorrow night. *facepalm*

The ZBA impressed me with its thoughtful, respectful yet firm discussion on this matter. Seeing that all this was really much ado about made-up crap, it was a pretty long discussion. The request for special permit passed, with some minor conditions, like a three month review. If I can get you some cut-down video I will!

Speaking of Tasks

by at 1:17 pm.

Christopher of Learning Lowell has an extremely excellent post taking a look at task forces, in light of the following motion for tomorrow night’s Council meeting:

C. Belanger – Req. City Council request Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force.

There was a lot of discussion on Facebook around this item, so Christopher starts out with quotes from that discussion. His post highlights organizations that have in interest in economic revitalization downtown, and also the history of the last 12 years of master plans and studies.

I very much suggest Christopher’s post be required reading for the entire City Council before tomorrow night’s meeting…it’s that good. There is a ton of context and some good, solid suggestions. It raises very important questions, and I think the Councilor who can speak credibly to those issues will be light years ahead of everyone else. If a Councilor want to sound really intelligent, they should bring a copy of his post to the City Council meeting tomorrow night!

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 13, 2014

Sting Operation for Plan E Government?

by at 11:55 am.

What a difference an election makes. What a difference a week makes. We’re headed in to our first Council meeting where everyone knows the City Manager is handing in his resignation; so now comes the fallout. And that might not be what the was intended by Plan E’s opponents, as we’ll see in a moment.

Jack has an overview of three motions on this week’s agenda of interest to the ongoing saga of what we face now - winding down the Lynch era, the hiring of his replacement, and replacing other outgoing top staff. One is a request for him to consider staying a little longer, at least through budget season, by CC Milinazzo. This is, on its face, a practical acknowledgement of the tight space Lowell is in, with no CFO (and with Lynch leaving, his disinclination to hire one right before heading out, a view shared by his detractors, for their own reasons) and an Auditor retiring, a little stability at the top for the complex and delicate job of managing the budget process might go a long way. It also gives the Council more time to collect resumes and consider a replacement. Of course, Elliott has shown himself to be chomping at the bit to hurry the hiring process along. I leave it to you, dear reader, to wonder why that might be. I’ll start you off: a rush job could equal a bag job?

Another motion on the docket, however, seeks to tie the outgoing Manager’s hands, by newcomer Dan Rourke. “Request the City Mgr. not enter into any contracts or extend any contracts and not to make any appointments or re-appointments to any Boards or Commissions.”

One wonders if Rourke has a problem with the city unions who have not yet had their contracts finished and signed? Is he implying they should wait potentially months for the process of hiring a new CM to play out? Anyways…

I think it’s reasonable to expect an outgoing CM not to make any huge changes on his way out the door. You know, like the last-minute 10% raises Cox gave his high-level buddies after he was told to leave but before he was officially gone? However, as some have said on social media, if you’re going to literally tie the hands of the City Manager by demanding, or at least requesting (I’m not sure it’s legal under Plan E to strip the CM of powers he has by statute) he not perform the bulk of his job, he should leave this very minute. The CM enters into contracts on a regular basis. Some are big, like the union contracts, which also require Council approval, and some are just every day minutia to keep the city running. If he’s not allowed to manage those, he should just be permitted to stop showing up to work tomorrow, and we can pay him to stay home for two months.

Moreover, I don’t think Lynch is the kind of guy who’s going to upend the whole operation (well, more than it already is with all the top staff moving on) and make sweeping changes or policy decisions on his way out the door. He’s going to wrap his tenure up with the intent of passing on a trim, neat operation for as smooth a transition as possible. A little trust, please? He’s got us this far.

As to appointments to boards commissions, or reappointments…please. Do you really believe that Lynch is going to stack the appointments (most of which, again, require Council approval anyway) with crony picks on his way out? That’s the way the Cox types operate. This has never been Lynch’s manner. This utter nonsense, this psychological projection by some in the city, of their own basest personality traits, onto Lynch, who has never displayed these traits, is starting to wear thin. All right, it was thin to begin with, now it’s rubbing on bone. I really wish those elements of Lowell would engage in a little self-reflection and see them the way the rest of us see them when they do these things.

I doubt Rourke came up with this motion on his own, by the way. It plays awfully well into the hands of the likes of the JMac, Dave Daly, or Vieira types. Raise your hand if you don’t think cousin Tippah had a hand in it? Daly, by the way, is president of an ambulance company with a longtime eye on the contract Trinity EMS currently has with the city of Lowell. The ambulance contract, like a few others, are completely the decision of the City Manager, with no interference allowed by the City Council. There is real money at stake here, this isn’t all about petty revenge.

Then there is the confirmed report that Elliot crashed the weekly department head meeting, making everyone uncomfortable. In at least the last decade, no mayor or councilor has done this. Mayor’s aids sometimes attend, presumably on specific issues or needs. I don’t know, but I can guess Elliott showed up with no polite notice to the CM or any dept heads. It’s a little like if you sold your house, and the new owners show up unannounced the day you’re hauling your stuff out, and start measuring for curtains and painting samples swatches on the living room wall. Sure, notice isn’t some sort of legal requirement. But it certainly announces, “I believe THIS is MY turf now!” It violates, at a minimum, the spirit of a Plan E form of government. And it’s just rude.

But I also believe, calculated. It’s no hidden secret that Elliott is a Plan A strong mayor supporter - preferably, I presume, with himself playing the role of strong mayor. He thinks oversight is equal to verbally beating the crap out of the people you oversee, even if you already have the answer you asked for, if past City Council meetings are any indication. So why would he operate in a weak mayor structure any differently? He’s trying to prove that a strong mayor does things. Like act like a City Manager. Even if legally, he can’t. Pound on chest. Repeat.

This, and the attempt to weaken the CM position temporarily by Rourke’s motion, and a host of other little actions and speeches from these folks, are all geared towards pushing Plan A. They beat the drum of “direct democracy! Voters should choose the person who runs the city!” when trying to outmaneuver the counter argument that Plan E works because your professional hire has muni management education and experience. They can’t come out and say, “we’re against professional city government!” or worse, “we want to hire our friends!” so they say, “From Lowell For Lowell” as if someone who lives elsewhere will never be able to be qualified enough to take the reigns. Notwithstanding their brilliance, high levels of education, or years of muni management experience.

I think though this will backfire. No, scratch that, I think it already is. There’s already a lot of pushback - not just on blogs, though the blogs are pretty much universally panning the current state of affairs, from blogfather Richard Howe to longtime born and bred Cap’n Paul Belley. But also on Facebook, Youtube (OK I’ll admit some culpability for that), Twitter, and, I’m guessing, by phone and by snail mail as well. People liked the direction the city has taken. They liked Lynch’s tenure, and they want more of the same.

I have long said that, despite the opposition projecting their own personality faults onto me, I have never been about supporting Bernie Lynch. I have been about supporting the hiring and retaining of professional, experienced, fair and honest City Managers. Full stop. I am easy to please, really I am. Hire another professional. Here’s a quick hint: you are unlikely to find such a candidate residing currently in Lowell. The number of people with experience like Bernie had when he was hired is very small. The pool is limited. You might even want to consider someone who lives far away (outside of practical driving distance) - then they’ll have to move here to take the job, right? Lowell has a lot to offer a transplant, even a City Manager. They’ll WANT to move here. That was the whole point of professional city government in the first place! To make Lowell a better place to live and work.

So overextend away on the whole Plan A thing. The more the better. Because the more they politicize the situation we’re in, the more they prove the downfalls of a Plan A strong mayor government, no?

January 10, 2014

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.

November 16, 2013

Blogs Pan Panhandling Ordinance

by at 10:00 am.

I find it interesting, this disconnect between the strong opinions of the blogs and a number of the public (if my facebook feed is any indication), and Councilors (and councilor-to-be Belanger, who has not acquitted himself well in my opinion…I’m sad to be right about him) about panhandling.

Dick sums it up pretty nicely - he understands the impulse to push these people into the shadows (or into other parts of the city) but that doesn’t solve any problems nor does it show a blink of compassion for people who might, actually, be down on their luck, and for whom a $50 fine might be insurmountable punishment. The Capt has a new post against the ordinance as well, and remembers how the Council also voted to push out the visible homeless camps - which if the first hand accounts of many folks are true, merely served to push these people deeper and keeps them further from the help that was being offered to them prior. I personally know of a hidden camp of some sort near my house, though I don’t know if it’s currently occupied.

Kad has his say already, twice. He is a downtown resident and customer, and also quite on the other side of the aisle from me politically, so it’s not like we’re all in some sort of echo chamber. Kad and I have had some doozies of disagreements at times. :)

New bloggers Aurora and Chris already aired their opinions as well (previously linked). So, to count - a long-time townie, myself, a downtown resident, brand new residents - all of us see this ordinance for what it really is.

And what is that? Knee-jerk governing.

This is the same sort of impulse that passed the homeless camp ordinance for which every person involved patted themselves on the back. See? We cleared those camps and solved the problems! Case closed! Except they are not solved. This same impulse passed the breed-specific pit bull ordinance, which subsequently got overruled by a state law banning breed-specific rules, thank goodness. You see this in the perennial “pedophiles in the library!” or “spend down the free cash on more cops because, public safety!” issues that come up.

Mr. Lynne walked by while I was writing this post. He works in Boston, taking the commuter rail in and walking to work from North Station. He walks through the Common and the Public Garden, among other places. He remarked, I probably walk by more panhandlers in one morning than these guys ever see in Lowell. And yet Boston is a pretty prosperous place to which people flock, and patronize their businesses.

Governing by optics, governing by outrage machine, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the worst sorts of governing that exists. Because it takes a serious problem, and proposes bad solutions, or non-solutions, or damaging solutions, in the name of expediency or convenience. This panhandling ordinance is also the worst kind of scapegoating. Let’s face it - our downtown businesses are often struggling. Whether it’s the lack of easy parking, the economy, the general struggles of any downtown, the fact everything closes at 5pm and no one is open on Sundays except restaurants, a lack of disposable income by many of the people who live downtown (elderly and affordable housing), or what have you, we’ve seen a lot of businesses shuttered, or moving, and empty storefronts are a little too common.

But clearing out panhandling won’t fix your lackluster business, Mr. Belanger.

Of course, aggressiveness or harassment by a panhandler is another thing all together - and I would think that existing rules probably prohibit anyone from such aggression (hence why we have the legal term “harassment”). Why we need a special rule for downtown banning it all together - other than as a knee-jerk reaction to a much larger problem of homelessness and addiction and the general, inescapable fact that we’re a city, dammit! - is beyond me.

November 12, 2013

AtB: Handling Pans

by at 3:19 pm.

The current gentrify-du-jour being a no-panhandling ordinance on tonight’s Council agenda, it’s no surprise some bloggers around here are writing about it.

Downtown resident/consumer kad has quite an equitable point of view: fine, cleaning stuff up is great, and we all want successful downtown businesses but

i think, if anybody’s asking me, the problem is first in perceiving these people as something, like bathroom waste, in need of “clean up”. we often ridicule other people for believing that “their shit don’t stink”, and, i think, here in lowell, we’ve got more than a few people who want to lay in a lifetime supply of febreeze and renuzits and just keep clouding the air with a bunch of sociological perfume in complete denial that we have a significant population of people who are challenged to “make it” in any way, shape or form recognizable to us in our centrally-heated, indoor plumbed luxury accommodations.

He also has a second post. As for my own opinion on the panhandling ordinance, I’m rather of a mind with kad - I sympathize with the downtown businesses and residents, but I worry that we’re shuffling the less fortunate out of our way so we don’t have to see them, and be uncomfortable. And the idea of fining a homeless person $50 for panhandling - whether he buys food, or booze with his proceeds - is patently stupid. Good luck collecting, or making your point. These are already people who are outside of the system and marginalized.

Chris at Learning Lowell is also on the subject of panhandling.

Aurora and I discussed it, and she summarized our opinions thusly:

I have a couple of concerns about it. I’m worried about a lack of commitment to outreach about the law and alternative options to panhandlers, creating a larger gulf between police (and social services) and the homeless population, and logistics of paying the fine. I’m also not sure what happens if the perpetrator cannot or will not pay a fine. Is this going to get people thrown in jail? Finally, I worry it will just “push” the problem to other areas of the City without addressing root issues.

A little bit older now, but I haven’t linked to it yet was Dick Howe’s “The ‘Cambodian vote’ in the 2013 city election”. In it, he looks at the numbers and tries to see how last Tuesday’s results for the Cambodian Council candidates happened:

My first theory was that the number of active Cambodian voters may be a fixed number that with the 2011 turnout of 9,946 was sufficient to win a seat but proved insufficient when the 2013 turnout rose to 11,581. Looking at the ward by ward performance by both Nuon and Pech in both 2011 and 2013 disproved that theory. Both made substantial gains in wards that have the most Cambodian voters (Wards 2, 3, 4, and 7). However, that same comparison shows that both Nuon and Pech, but especially Nuon, lost a substantial number of votes from 2011 to 2013 in the wards that have the fewest Cambodian voters (Wards 1, 6, and 9 – both also lost ground in Ward 8 which has a substantial Cambodian population but has other issues that will be a subject of a future post).

There are some great comments there, too.

Dick also has his always-valuable Week in Review. And of course, there are a ton of other posts from this last week on his blog on culture, history, and the arts.

Greg has a quick, but interesting post about the oft-ignored School Committee race. He says, “There will be time later on for more analysis, but for now this may suggest there is a “Challenger Bump” enjoyed by School Committee candidates, followed by a time of great vulnerability (first re-election attempt).”

Finally, there is an awesome Jen Myers post on her Room 50 blog about the recent visit of former, first female President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Jen always brings events to life with her photography.

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