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January 29, 2023
A positive development from Tuesday’s council meeting came in a Department of Planning and Development response to a motion by Councilor Corey Robinson asking for a report on repurposing the Centralville Reservoir for recreational purposes. The report cited a 2016 study by DPD on the feasibility and cost of filling in the reservoir and utilizing the parcel for recreational open space. Given increased costs since 2016, DPD estimated the work would cost about $5 million today.
The motion response included a DPD “case study” in possible recreational uses for the area, and stated “DPD welcomes an opportunity to talk with residents in the community about their interest in the Reservoir space and what types of amenities would be most beneficial to the community.”
Councilor Robinson and several of his colleagues seemed quite enthused about the proposal, as did City Manager Tom Golden, who represented that neighborhood for 27 years in the state legislature.
The report states:
McDermott Reservoir is a 15 acre passive green space in the Centralville neighborhood. Approximately 5 acres of the site is occupied by a reservoir which is no longer in use. The reservoir is nearing the end of it structural life span and presents a significant risk to the surrounding neighborhood. The need to fill in the reservoir offers a unique opportunity for the city of Lowell to improve and expand both active and passive open space resources to meet the diverse recreational needs of the entire community, regardless of age or ability . . .
This reservoir is on the high ground that most of us know as Christian Hill. Whenever I’ve walked around that neighborhood, I’m astounded by the views of downtown and much of the rest of the city that are available from there. It’s another of the many places that cause people visiting from outside the city to exclaim, “I didn’t know there were places like this in Lowell.” So yes, this is a worthwhile project that should be vigorously pursued.
How the reservoir came to be is a fascinating story. It was built in 1876 as part of a (then) state-of-the-art system for providing water to the rest of Lowell for “extinguishing fires, domestic, and other purposes.” Besides converting the reservoir to an outstanding recreational venue, this heightened interest in the place presents an opportunity to celebrate municipal government. At the time the reservoir was constructed, there was growing recognition that other sources of drinking water in the city were killing people and this was a sincere effort to make life better. It came at substantial cost, but that was what cities did (and still do) for their residents.
Today when we turn on the faucet at home and immediately get clean, good-tasting, safe-to-drink water, few people think about all that goes into making that happen. Learning how the system of providing water to residents evolved might make people better appreciate the service that the city provides today.
I’ve written a short history of the reservoir and posted it today on richardhowe.com so please check that out.
Tuesday’s meeting kicked off with a discussion of how some employees received extra compensation for working in the early stages of the Covid pandemic, and how some did not. The non-recipients are now looking for recompense and many of the councilors were quite vocal in supporting that.
From the context of the discussion, it seems that employees who had to work in person and who had to deal directly with the public received this extra Covid pay, but employees who had to work in person but who only interacted with other employees did not. The latter group seems the one that feels short-changed.
A couple of observations:
There was probably some kind of restrictions placed on the source of the money used to make these payments that limited the payments to those who dealt with the public so the decision on who got paid and who didn’t wasn’t necessarily an arbitrary one.
That said, the culture in public employment is to group everyone together. Performance bonuses are frowned upon, even by the recipients, since they “make everyone else look bad.” Similarly, weak performers are often tolerated because factors other than job performance play a substantial role in government employment decisions.
While employees and their union representatives have every right to advocate for the additional pay, the very vocal actions of the council trespassed on the city charter’s prohibition on councilors interfering with the city manager’s role as chief executive of the city. Negotiating contracts and compensation is the manager’s responsibility, not the council’s. That’s something the state law is very clear about.
Thinking back to the worst of the Covid era, it always struck me that there was never any public discussion about requiring city employees to be vaccinated. There was also ample evidence that in general, mask-wearing was looked upon unfavorably and dispensed with as quickly as possible. So there’s a disconnect between “Covid is no big deal so I’ll ignore recommended precautions” and “I deserve extra pay for risking exposure to Covid.”
Still, there’s no ban on inconsistencies in city government (or in life), so it’s best to leave it to the city manager to work this out.
The issue of homelessness is more prominent in the winter months and it became the topic of a lengthier-than-needed discussion Tuesday night. It arose when two motions (one by Councilor Vesna Nuon; the second by Councilors Nuon and Robinson) asked to revisit the findings of a 2019 Summit on Homelessness held by the city. Both should have been “the motion speaks for itself” levels of debate with motion responses and in-depth discussion occurring sometime in the future, but a member of the public (who happens to be a person who ran for council in the last election) registered to speak and criticized councilors for lacking compassion for the homeless due to the recent dismantling of several outdoor encampments.
In response, a relay of city councilors provided heated rebuttals to the speaker. Much of it was a replay of what councilors said at the last meeting in reply to another member of the public who questioned councilors’ commitment to the plight of the homeless.
It’s no fun to be publicly criticized but it’s important for a public official to be proportionate in replying to criticisms. A councilor or two rebutting for the record an unfounded allegation made by a member of the public speaking at a meeting is understandable and probably prudent, but an overreaction by councilors just sends a message to agitators that the way to get attention is to sign up to speak at council meetings and say outlandish things.
And when it comes to criticism on social media, leave it on social media. Most people aren’t “on Facebook” and the number who used to be but have left is growing. To take something from social media and repeat it on the floor of the city council gives it reach and legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve and is usually not productive.
Last week I wrote about the changing nature of employment, specifically that comfort with computer programs like Excel and Google Docs should be core competencies for anyone hired by the city. This week at the council meeting there was further evidence of the importance of technology in government with the creation of two new positions: the first was IT Manager at the Career Center; the second was Digital Evidence Specialist at the Lowell Police Department.
Regarding the IT Manager, it sounds like the responsibilities of this position had been performed in the past by a combination of a recently-retired employee who happened to have some computer skills and outside on-call contractors. This new position seeks to formalize those skills in an on-site employee. As technology becomes the foundation of more and more work available in our society, technology is also the key to finding and applying for jobs. I suspect many of the people served by the career center are lacking in that ability, so having some technological expertise on site seems like a wise move.
As for the Digital Evidence Specialist, that person will be responsible for the video captured by body-worn police cameras. My only question is will one person be enough to do what’s going to be required? As body-worn cameras become used all the time by every officer in the department, the amount of video captured will be immense. In addition to routine public records requests for recordings, I suspect that every arrest will be followed by a discovery request from a defense lawyer for all body-camera footage of the incident. That’s an entirely legitimate demand that will be routinely allowed by the court. The good news is that having the defendant’s behavior captured on video should result in a lot more guilty pleas, but also some cases being dismissed by prosecutors.
When I started practicing law in 1986, the big new thing was police departments making video recordings of suspects arrested for drunk driving. Some could barely stand which undercut the “I only had a few beers” defense and typically resulted in a guilty plea. But other times, the person depicted in the officer’s arrest report as “falling down drunk” looked quite composed and capable on video. These cases often ended in acquittals. Sometimes police reports had been embellished; other times under the influence alcoholics were adept at appearing sober. In any case, the practice of videotaping drunk driving arrests was quietly dispensed with by police departments. That’s not likely to happen with today’s body-worn cameras, so it will be interesting to see how that changes policing and judicial outcomes.
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