When Lowell General Hospital wanted to set up a mass vaccination site to help the city and region combat the coronavirus pandemic, he offered his Cross River Center on Pawtucket Boulevard free of charge to Circle Health, resulting in more than 140,000 doses of the vaccine being administered at the site.
Now, as of Tuesday, John Power of Farley White Interests is an honorary citizen of Lowell.
In accepting the honor, Power said Circle Health and Lowell General Hospital President and CEO Jody White “is as important as anyone in making me look really good,” and that the effort could not have been accomplished without him.
Power reflected on how first coming to Lowell in 1993 and being involved in the auction of the Wang Towers — which became CrossPoint — “was the start of a lifelong journey and connection to the city.”
“When I came to Lowell I had never seen a group of individuals that work together, that pull together, that find reasons to succeed like you do in this city of Lowell,” Power said. “And that was the reason I came here originally, it was the reason I’ve stayed all the time I’ve been, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of this.”
He also joked that Jim Cook, the former executive director of the Lowell Plan and the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation, “cannot call me a blow-in anymore, right?”
Councilors Bill Samaras and Dan Rourke, who were behind the motion that created the citizen award and named Power as the first recipient, thanked him and White for everything they did to make the mass vaccination site not only possible but “one of the best-run in the state,” Samaras said.
“We know these are trying times. We know we haven’t defeated the COVID virus,” Samaras said. “But I think in Lowell, there’s been a very good attempt to make sure that we try to do our best, and the only way we can try to do things like this is to have people like John Power and Jody White working together to make this a better city.”
Rourke called it “a flawless operation,” and expressed appreciation on behalf of the city and its residents.
“We were very, very fortunate to have everybody in place that put this together on a very quick schedule and that it was open for as long as it needed to be,” Rourke said. “It’s another example of how the city and its partners come together in a time of need.”
Rourke noted that he walked into City Hall with Power ahead of the meeting, and, addressing City Manager Eileen Donoghue, said, “Madam manager, you’re gonna have to repaint those crosswalk lines because he almost got killed walking over here.”
After Mayor John Leahy read the award and everyone posed together for a photo op, Power had one last thing to say about the honor.
“If this is worth anything in the long-run, you’ll find a way to get another smokestack lit up this Christmas,” Power said, drawing laughs from the room.
“Councilor (Rodney) Elliott likes ladders so he’ll be the first one to climb up and help hang them,” Leahy responded.
Elliott proposal has fans
SPEAKING OF Elliott, his motion to work with the Election Commission to try to ensure two polling locations in each district garnered several speakers who expressed their support.
As expected, there were candidates for office among them:
Debbie Belanger, who’s running for City Council at-large, rehashed her comments from the previous meeting where she spoke against the plan to reduce the polling locations to only one per district.
“We need to consider that some residents rely on public transportation and have a non-traditional work schedule,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon us to make voting easier. I’m disappointed that this decision adds barriers rather than reduces them.”
Stacey Thompson, candidate for School Committee District 1, said that when she taught in Lowell, she walked students down to City Hall to register to vote as a civic engagement lesson about the power of their vote.
“I think it is right to make sure that no process or choices interrupt, deter, alter or end the privilege that many have fought to secure,” she said. “It is imperative that there be ample polling locations, and that any change to minimize that effectively impacts the vote and does not promote a free and fair or equitable election.”
Dave Ouellette, candidate for the Acre District 7 seat, tried to lighten the mood a little when discussing how much his own polling location had moved over the last decade.
“A candidate wears out his sneakers trying to knock on doors,” he said. “A voter wears out his sneakers trying to find the (polling) location.”
Not all of them were candidates, however.
A handful of people spoke as both residents and representatives of organizations that serve the city and promote fair elections.
Some were affiliated with the Lowell Votes coalition, which sent a letter to city officials ahead of the meeting outlining their concerns with the proposal for one polling location per district. They suggested the city’s legal options included using 2010 census data to re-precinct or subdivide the districts, but that special permission would be needed via home-rule petition or amending the consent decree.
Some of the most compelling and passionate testimony came from the youngest speakers.
Zarais German-George — who serves on the Citizen Advisory Committee to the Police Department and was recently elected by her peers at Salem State University to serve as student representative on its board of trustees for the next academic year — discussed how confusing the U.S. electoral process already is for immigrants like her parents, and said that “having a single polling location per district will only add to that confusion.”
“As a Lowell resident, I ask that you will make Election Day as easy as possible for the people of Lowell who deserve to have their voices heard,” she said. “So please, do not add to the voter suppression that happens so much in many states in this country.”
Tara Hong, a student at UMass Lowell, also asked city officials to make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote, and said that a discussion on reducing polling locations shouldn’t even be happening in a place like Massachusetts.
“Do not tell me there’s no other option how to fix this,” he said. “And I believe that we cannot use the excuse of the new voting system and census to try to make more confusion for our community members to go out and vote on Election Day.”
ANOTHER MOTION that garnered speakers Tuesday was Councilor Rita Mercier’s request that City Manager Eileen Donoghue “provide the council with the city’s vision, direction and guidance for what is the future for Downtown Lowell.”
“As I present this motion, please know that I blame no one for what I am about to say with respect to this motion on the downtown,” Mercier prefaced her remarks. “For quite some time I have felt that the downtown seemed to be heading in a downward spiral, but it wasn’t until people were in town to attend a wake and funeral that I felt compelled to bring this issue to light.”
She noted several businesses and organizations have moved out of the downtown resulting in many empty storefronts, and problems with homeless people and drug addicts that have made “the heart of the city” unappealing to businesses and patrons alike, along with pedestrians having to dodge bicycles and skateboarders.
“Sorry to say, if I had an innovative product and the money to open a business in the downtown, would I?” Mercier said. “With empty storefronts on either side of me, and who knows when I come to open my store, will I find someone sleeping in the doorway, or shooting up, or relieving themself? I do not want to take that chance. I would look elsewhere.”
Mercier had raised the issues at a neighborhood community meeting the Police Department hosted last Thursday and invited attendees to come and speak on the matter. Three people took up the offer.
The first person up was Debbie Belanger, the former executive director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, who said the city is still in “recovery mode” from the pandemic. Pointing to past efforts that were successful in increasing tourism and tax revenue in Lowell, she said the city is in need of a five-year advertising and public-relations campaign backed with a $2 million investment.
“I feel it is extremely important to have a vision, and have a plan, to help revitalize and re-energize the downtown area,” Belanger said.
Richard Healy, owner of The Keep on Gorham Street, had also spoken at the neighborhood meeting. He discussed his excitement to open a business in Lowell — and how that excitement has waned while actually running it.
“I love this city, but it makes it hard to really enjoy your city when your general manager gets jumped by junkies that are just at your kitchen door, when you have to actually wipe off human excrement from your foot when you walk into your own business,” Healy said. “Those are things that I didn’t think I’d have to really deal with opening up a small business in Lowell — I can’t imagine anyone really would.”
The last speaker wasn’t very happy with Mercier.
Katherine Ragot said she felt Mercier’s “trash-talking the city and grandstanding to make a campaign event out of a neighborhood meeting was disappointing and inappropriate behavior that did not reflect well” on Mercier or the council.
“Scapegoating the homeless is not the answer,” Ragot said. “People experiencing homelessness are forced to live their crisis in public and I can only imagine how deeply humiliating and exhausting it is to try and survive as they do.”
Ragot said she disagreed with the “bleak picture” Mercier painted of the city she loves and enjoys showing her friends from out of town its art, music and food offerings. Ragot also asked the council what its plans were to address the city’s housing, homeless and business needs.
“It feels particularly tone-deaf for Councilor Mercier to be asking for a plan for the future of Downtown Lowell when she’s had over 20 years in power to improve it,” Ragot said, suggesting a change is needed in representation.
What’s next for UML leadership
UMASS LOWELL is set to begin a “nationwide search” in the fall to replace Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who announced last week her intention to retire next June after six years at the helm and more than three decades at the university.
It’s likely, however, the search will end up where it starts.
UMass President Marty Meehan, himself a former UML chancellor and alum, is very high on Provost Joseph Hartman and Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and economic development.
Meehan declined to comment when contacted by The Column last week, however it is well known that he thinks very highly of both Hartman and Chen, both of whom flourished under Meehan’s oversight when he was chancellor. Meehan promoted Hartman, for example, from dean of the Francis College of Engineering to provost.
With Moloney having given a one-year notice, there will be ample time to search and avoid appointing an interim, something Meehan eschews.
Tamer in Tyngsboro
PORTENTS SEEMED against a productive meeting of the Tyngsboro Board of Selectmen on Monday night.
Before Chairman Ron Keohane brought the meeting to order, Selectman Hillari Wennerstrom was overheard sniping at him for his “leadership style.” Keohane was elected chairman after the town’s June election. Wennerstrom’s grievance appeared to be about lack of communication.
But the portents were largely wrong, proving that elections have consequences. Two selectmen who were often criticized for interfering in the work of Police Chief Richard Howe and Town Administrator Matt Hanson are gone.
David R. Robson was handily defeated in the June election, and Steve Nocco did not seek re-election. Wennerstrom and Selectman Rick Reault are the two remaining members of the board who have often been criticized for interfering in police department and town operations.
Two items on the agenda that might have been upended in the past were approved with little discussion and only one admonition. That came from Wennerstrom and was directed at Town Administrator Matt Hanson.
Police Chief Richard Howe recommended appointing Saisha Carrucini as a full-time police officer. Carrucini is a 2013 graduate of Lowell High School, a Marine Corps veteran, and came with an outstanding recommendation from one of her instructors at the Northern Essex Community College Police Academy. One of her instructors at the academy, Detective Sean Murphy of the Lawrence Police Department, said that “I have graduated 535 police officers from 72 different municipalities. I can say without hesitation that Saisha Carrucini is among the 10 best recruits I have ever seen.”
Carrucini’s appointment went off without a hitch, unlike the recent appointment of Olivia King to the department.
Howe recommended hiring King as a new patrol officer in May. He touted her bachelor’s degree and experience in early childhood development as well as her commitment to pursuing a master’s degree in psychology.
In the current climate surrounding law enforcement issues, he said her background would be an asset.
But within moments of Howe making King’s name public, Wennerstrom said she’d heard “rumors” about the candidate. The chief asked where she heard the rumors, and she said from members of the police department. Howe asked why she hadn’t come to him with this information because it “has been completely debunked.”
Her action coincided with fellow Selectman Rick Reault indicating that the board should be more closely involved in hiring decisions.
Questioning Howe for two hours about policies for promotions and hires in the department, Reault objected to what he termed the board’s lack of involvement in making these — at one point suggesting that selectmen should have input into interviews.
The actions of Wennerstrom and Reault derailed King’s appointment until early June.
The other item on the agenda that might have caused difficulty in the past was Hanson’s recommended appointment of Shannon McAndrew to the position of executive assistant to the Board of Selectmen and the Town Administrator’s office. She will succeed Colin Loiselle, who was named assistant town administrator several weeks ago.
McAndrew has a master’s degree in public policy and administration from the University of Massachusetts (location not specified) and is working in upstate New York. She will be moving to the Tyngsboro area. In negotiating employment terms with her, Hanson offered three weeks’ vacation as part of her package.
That drew comment from Wennerstrom who opined once again that selectmen should have been consulted.
Enlisting help in fight against domestic violence
PRAISING HAIRDRESSERS, salon professionals and other personal care workers as “uniquely able” to identify signs of domestic violence, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan urged lawmakers last week to launch a statewide training program so those workers are better equipped to support clients in crisis.
Ryan gave her support to legislation that would require one hour of domestic violence and sexual assault awareness training for anyone seeking to obtain or renew a license in a range of personal care and cosmetology fields.
“Across communities and for different reasons, people tend to form very strong personal relationships with their salon care professionals, with their barbers,” Ryan said, emphasizing that domestic or sexual violence victims are often more comfortable confiding in someone they already know and trust.
In addition to serving as confidants for many of their clients, Ryan said hairdressers, manicurists and others are often able to detect injuries linked to domestic violence, such as ripping out of hair close to the base of the neck.
The legislation, filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Christine Barber, builds on the “Cut it Out” program Ryan’s office launched a decade ago. Since then, the program has trained nearly 3,000 workers in Middlesex County on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence and sexual assault as well as how to respond.
“They are acquainted with the shelters, with the domestic violence officers in their communities, and they can direct people into them,” Ryan said. “This is a simple change. We have seen how effective it is. Anyone who speaks to people who are experienced in this field knows they are seeing this abuse. We certainly want to intervene before we have a tragedy.”
Methuen Sen. Diana DiZoglio also filed a similar bill requiring domestic violence and sexual assault awareness education for personal care workers.
Finegold pushes for student-athlete support
WITH THE NCAA recently allowing college athletes to earn compensation from the use of their name, image, or likeness, state Sen. Barry Finegold is looking to keep the ball rolling.
While the Andover Democrat introduced a bill aimed at giving student-athletes a slice of the NCAA-money-pie back in March, the association changed its stance on the issue in June, after multiple other states passed their own laws allowing college athletes to sign endorsement deals.
Still, Finegold urged the Joint Committee on Higher Education on Tuesday to move ahead with the bill regardless, arguing that the NCAA’s new policy doesn’t actually have much teeth.
Specifically, he said that his proposed bill would codify the NCAA’s rule change into Massachusetts law and provide additional clarity both for athletes and higher education institutions as they figure out how to comply with the association’s guidelines.
“Colleges have been reaching out to my office saying, ‘we need some guidelines on this, we need your help, we need you to now codify this into state law,’ because a lot of other states already have laws and until the federal government does something, it is the wild west for what they can and can’t do,” Finegold said. “These are now the things that they need help with.”
He also said that the bill would require colleges to compensate college athletes who suffer catastrophic injuries, and would enable the athletes to enter professional sports drafts and earn compensation without forfeiting their college eligibility status.
Of pot and Pepperell
MONDAY NIGHT should be the conclusion of a months-long fight over Pepperell’s recreational marijuana bylaws.
Although the meeting on June 21 really appeared to be the conclusion. New England Craft Cultivators asked for a long-term extension on their special permit application. The Planning Board said no, saying, in essence, there was nothing left to study. An extension was granted to July 19 so the company could hear a decision in front of a full board.
If prior meetings are any indication, one of two things will happen: NECC will begrudgingly withdraw their special permit application without prejudice or the Planning Board will vote to deny it.
The former will ultimately be in the company’s best interest. It would allow them to re-apply in the future. A rejection vote by the Planning Board would mean a two-year window before they are allowed to do so again.
In question all along has been whether the town’s recreational marijuana ties the number of dispensaries to the number of actually issued off-site consumption liquor licenses or the total number of off-site consumption liquor licenses the town has available to grant.
The bylaw is vague. However, the growing consensus is that the bylaw is written to tie the number of recreational dispensaries to the number of off-site consumption liquor licenses that have actually been issued.
It means the difference between one or two dispensaries.
Because NECC was the second company to apply for a special permit, they will be the company impacted by the decision.
Uma Flowers LLC, the first company to apply, will continue as planned.
Throughout it all, NECC’s co-CEO Wes Ritchie has remained positive and focused on opening for business. Even when facing misinformed critics who demonstrate little knowledge about marijuana’s safety and the impact recreational dispensaries have had on communities.
When NECC applied for their special permit, they believed they were following the rules. They were told the town wanted two recreational marijuana companies to come in. The Sun has confirmed that was the bylaw’s original intent and only changed after the town’s government questioned it themselves.
NECC says they want to be a community partner. They’ve already made an investment in the community at 112-114 Main St. and identified potential staff members. Losing them will be the loss of a potential partner and a majority LGBTQ owned business
Things are still subject to change but it would be an outstanding change of course at the last minute.
This week’s Column was prepared by Reporters Alana Melanson in Lowell; Stefan Geller in Tewksbury; Prudy Brighton in Tyngsboro; Jake Vitali in Pepperell; State House News Service; and Enterprise Editor Christopher Scott.