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July 2, 2023
Because of the Lowell City Council’s every-other-week meeting schedule in summer, Council meetings at this time of year typically have packed agendas and routinely bump up against the Council rule that meetings may not go past 10 pm. Although it’s still early, that hasn’t been the case this summer. This past Tuesday, if you stripped out the various citations and presentations that took more than an hour at the start of the meeting, the rest of the agenda was concise and was processed expeditiously with just a few exceptions.
This is likely a positive development. In the 50 years I’ve been paying attention to Lowell City Councils, there has never been a Council that has carpet bombed City Managers with as many motions as this Council has. Perhaps it occurred to them that if the upper echelons of city leadership spend their entire work week answering motions from last week’s Council meeting in time for next week’s Council meeting, nothing else gets done. The Council’s job is to set policy and then evaluate the City Manager on how they implement policy; it’s not to micromanage city operations.
This term’s novel behavior is a consequence, at least in part, of the City Council’s new district structure. There has been a legitimate effort by Councilors to bring some geographic equity to the distribution of city expenditures and they’ve largely succeeded in doing that, but it has had other consequences. One is that other Councilors refrain from opposing or even questioning requests made by a fellow Councilor. If you oppose Councilor A’s request for something for their district, Councilor A will likely oppose a request you make for your district. So whatever one Councilor wants in most cases gets rubber stamped by their colleagues.
In the past, when all the Councilors represented the entire city, that circumstance caused coalitions to form and those coalitions had a tempering effect on demands made by Councilors. You could safely oppose an initiative brought by a Councilor from the other faction since that Councilor was unlikely to vote for something you wanted anyway. Reading that, you might say, “This is the City Council, not middle school, so it shouldn’t work that way.” That may be true, but the city does not have infinite resources, neither in employee time nor in money to spend, so priorities have to be set. The old system, as juvenile as it may have seemed, imposed restraints on the Council that are no longer there.
Another factor contributing to more subdued Council meetings lately is that it’s election time. While there is still time for candidates to emerge, it looks like most of the incumbent Councilors will be unopposed. So why rock the boat? Better to load up on citations and group photos and glide into an uncontested reelection.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an incumbent running unopposed, but a few years ago when the election experts involved in the settlement of the voting rights lawsuit against the city were presenting the pros and cons of the two systems under consideration – the district/at-large hybrid that was adopted or the ranked choice voting alternative – one of the observations of the experts regarding the district system was that once it was adopted, it tended to cut down on competition. History showed that once a district councilor was elected, they tended to stay in office for as long as they wanted to.
As for the Council meeting itself, the School Department’s “bad bills” came before the Council for the third time – or maybe it was the fourth. They are still not fully resolved. The Council did authorize payment of the bulk of the bills, but balked at voting for $108,000 owed to Brazukinha Transportation.
According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website, Brazukinha Transport and Care Inc. was incorporated in 2012 and is based in Lynn, Massachusetts. Its president is Fernanda Garcia of Saugus.
The objection to this payment was lodged by Councilor Erik Gitschier who maintained that state law required that a service costing $108,000 be put out to bid and this was not. The School Department’s Chief Financial Officer, Billy Jo Turner, countered that the transportation that resulted in this invoice was unexpected and of an emergency nature in that it involved students who were homeless or in the custody of some state agency and that other state law required the School Department to provide transportation immediately so there was no time to follow the bid process. To that, Councilor Gitschier responded that even though individual cases might arise without notice, it was fully predictable that over the course of a year, some amount of transportation services of this type would be needed and that bidding for contingent services that might be needed in the future was common in state and local government. He emphasized that by just selecting a company to perform this service without a bid process deprived other companies who might provide similar services from being hired for some or all of the work. City Solicitor Corey Williams confirmed Councilor Gitschier’s analysis of the bid law and recommended that the Council not authorize the payment of this invoice although in response to other Council questions, Williams indicated that Brazukinha could sue the city for the money claimed to be due. The Solicitor added that any further discussion by the Council of potential litigation should take place in Executive Session.
The much anticipated “ARPA online dashboard” was unveiled during the Council meeting. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Biden. The city has been allocated $76 million in ARPA funding and this dashboard is intended to show the public how the money is being spent.
The site contains a number of graphs and diagrams that show how the city has spent the money thus far along with several recurring reports (Compliance Reports; Monthly Spending Summaries; Quarterly Project Summaries). There is also an “Apply Here” button that allows people to apply for various grants that might be available.
On the “Itemized Requests for 2023-2028” page, it looks like $27 million has been committed by the city. Expenditures more than $1 million on the list include:
Fire Department Vehicles (10 purchased) - $10 million;
Enterprise Fund Stabilization Fund (replaced “lost revenue” in Parking, Water, and Wastewater enterprise funds) - $8 million;
Lowell School Air Quality Improvement Project - $1 million;
Robinson School Unit Ventilator Replacement Program - $1 million;
Vacon Sewer Maintenance Vehicles (2 purchased) - $1.2 million;
Happy Independence Day! No City Council meeting this week.
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