Sun Debate: City Manager, School, and Safety

The Sun Debate was about a week ago, but I’ve just finished watching the third at http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_24385207/crime-takes-center-stage-round-1-lowell-city. I’ve seen a few folks comment on the Sun’s follow-up articles, but the videos give much more context. The same pool of questions were used in each debate, although moderators sometimes didn’t address every question or varied the phrasing. This will be the first of two parts recording the questions and our reactions. The second is here.

Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

Debate Round 3; from left: Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

The City Manager’s contract expires next august. Would you give him a new contract? If not, why not? If so, how long?

This question, submitted by Sun readers, is considered the “hot” issue of the election. From my vantage point, the audience reacted more to this question than any other. However, a lot has been written about this issue already (Sun part 1 and 2) (Left in Lowell). Notably, Mr. Millanazo brought up an argument I hadn’t heard before: a contract longer than two years makes the next council “stuck” with the decisions of the former council. There was a followup in the third group: “Where is the current manager lacking?” Mr. Pech had a long list: some neighborhoods are underserved, there are some issues with board and committee appointments, and more departments need to be restructured. Counselor Mendoca noted better interpersonal relations with counselors were necessary, something Mr. Mitchell and Counselor Nuon mentioned in an earlier debate.

We were surprised by an answer by many: Mr. Rourke, Ms. Doyle, Ms. Hargis, and Counselors Martin and Nuon all said that more communication was needed with neighborhoods, the media, and those outside Lowell to gather input and promote the City. Some admitted, “We could all do better.” However, Aurora and I had just came from a listening session with the City Manager: an example of neighborhood outreach. Not only that, but we read his blog where he advertises events and developments and hear addresses with nothing but positives about Lowell.

I strongly believe in participatory planning, and I think there could always be more and better outreach. Lowell is no exception. However, a lack of outreach isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of City Manager Lynch.

Is a new high school the most important need in the City, or do you have another priority?

This question was also from Sun readers. Some quotes were printed in this Sun article, and this is the key issue discussed on Lowell2020. Counselors Lorrey and Mercier suggested there may be neighborhood resistance to moving, something not noted in the Sun’s article. However, this was just part of their argument to do community outreach, and Counselor Mercier’s larger argument was focusing on the students and a growing drug problem, not the building. Additionally, I thought it was especially notable that Counselor Elliott implied that additional code inspectors (and police officers) was a greater priority than a new high school building.

Also not mentioned was Mr. Mitchell’s argument of “dollars and cents:” that the choice should be made on what is least expensive in the long-term and what can keep young, taxpaying families in Lowell. He wasn’t the only one to make this argument in one form or another. Another interesting sidenote was a disagreement between Counselor Leahy and others arguing about doing well by those with low incomes. He was the only one to mention competition from private schools:

“…I shouldn’t have to send [my children] to a private school because I don’t feel they aren’t getting a good education or the facilities aren’t up-to-par in the City.”

Counselor Leahy also mentioned that the City must consider quality in the building rather than just pursuing the lowest bidder, implying the lowest bidder built the problematic 1980s expansion.

The Police Superintendent is off seven months, and the department’s been running with an interim chief. Do you think this has had an effect on public safety?

This questions resonated with several members of the audience. It also split the candidates. Although almost everyone didn’t see a connection, that was the end of the agreement. Some, such as Counselors Martin and Mendoca, focused on the argument that time should be taken to find the right person. Others, such as Mr. Rourke, Mr. Elliot, Mr. Gitschier, Counselor Kennedy, or Ms. Hargis, mentioned the problems with having an interim superintendent and the need to select one quickly. The rest focused on overtime or community policing, not addressing the issue of Superintendent.

When asked what he did attribute the spikes to, Counselor Martin said, “I don’t think there’s any secret about it,” referring to drug use and weapon proliferation. Almost everyone discussed a variation on that reason, sometimes mentioning the reports of increased profit associated with Marijuana. Ms. Hargis even mentioned the need for preparation of medical marijuana legalization. I was surprised that only Ms. Doyle mentioned the other correlating crime factor: poverty and the hopelessness associated with it.

Stay tuned for the final four questions.

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