Will the Election Change Lowell’s Police Policy?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Post Election Community Dialogue, the latest in a series of open events the police force has held to try to clarify their own values and policy, while taking input from citizens about what their experiences and concerns are. This one focused on the “Post Election Environment” in which, politics aside, I think we can all agree a lot of people are feeling afraid and that evidence shows that hate crimes seem to be spiking.

Dialogue about community police lowell ma

Captain Taylor at the dialogue. (Image courtesy Lowell PD’s Facebook)

Chief William Taylor, dressed in a suit and Christmas tie, started things off by introducing the officers in the room, as well as a representative from the FBI and State’s Attorney’s office. Then he read a prepared statement, clarifying the LPD’s policy on immigration status. In essence: regardless of your immigration status, the police want you to feel comfortable reporting a crime, calling emergency services, or asking for help. They say they don’t routinely run immigration checks in any of those cases. However, when they arrest someone, they do run a check, and it’s likely that problems would come up there.

The police in Lowell do collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when ICE reaches out to them, but they don’t routinely reach out to them to try to remove otherwise law-abiding members of the community. Other cities, including Lawrence, have passed a “Trust Act” which limits their collaboration with ICE. Efforts like this are one of the things people are describing when they talk about becoming a “Sanctuary City” which actively tries to protect people living there from federal government deportation.

Right out of the gate, the first question was about this possibility, and it came up several more times. The question was raised by a representative from the emerging group Solidarity Lowell. Chief Taylor had clearly anticipated this question, and he explained that, as far as he’s concerned, that’s a question for the City Council. He did go on to say that, though he had no strong opinion about it, he thought that the current system works well and didn’t really see further steps as necessary.

A representative from the International Institute asked for clarification about access to interpreters. If someone is being interviewed by the police, they do have the right to be interviewed in their own language. If someone calls in needing help from the police, it’s challenging in Lowell to cover all languages, but they have access to resources. Another representative, following up on that, suggested more translation at community meetings.

Additional questions along these lines clarified that they just hired their first Arabic speaking officer. They also try hard to do outreach to new groups, including building a good relationship with the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Working to make sure new Lowellians know their rights is a priority, as is avoiding discrimination and implicit bias at work in the actions of officers. The newly reformed Race Relations Council, a citizen advisory group made up of diverse community members is a step in the right direction that helps make sure that the Police force is hearing from everyone.

Next to come up is another issue on everybody’s mind: hate crimes. Captain Kelly said they haven’t really had any clear incidents reported to them. The rep from the International Institute said that she’s heard two reports of women having someone pull at their hijabs to try to remove them. For myself, I’ve heard about two separate incidents of Latino kids at school being taunted with the threat of being deported. The Attorney’s Office rep reminded people that these things can be judgement calls, but encouraged people not to hesitate to report them. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to try to figure out if something is a crime, the experts can do that. And if you hadn’t heard, in Massachusetts we have a newly created hotline to report harassment and intimidation.

Young CMAA Professionals

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Young Professionals after a community dialogue. (Image courtesy Sovanna Pouv/CMAA)

A kid from Teen Block suggested that police officers need to work harder to make community members feel comfortable. He mentioned that officers meeting with kids at Teen Block is a step in the right direction. One of the officers who’s been working with youth quite a bit, especially on Dance for Peace, talked about how fun and rewarding that has been. Another representative of Teen Block talked about trying to make kids feel more comfortable with officers, especially those stationed at schools. Captain Taylor agreed, and said that officers at schools are meant to help people feel safe. Captain Kelly talked about a time when that’s worked well, when a teenager texting with a friend wrapped up in a dangerous trafficking situation approached the school officer to share her concerns about her friend.

There was an intense discussion around the issue of scammers posing as police or other officials targeting the immigrant population. This can be confusing even for people familiar with the way things work in the US, but for people who may come from countries where a certain level of bribery and corruption is normal, it can be especially confusing. To clarify, no government official should ever ask you for money or your social security number over the phone. It’s always okay, if you get a call, to ask to call back the official office to make sure you’re talking to someone legitimate. Sometimes these scammers can also come to the door, so it’s okay to ask to see a badge and credentials. Chief Taylor said that our neighbors are the best protection we have, and that we should all try to keep an eye out for our elderly and recent immigrant neighbors. I think you’ll be hearing more about this issue from the department soon.

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Body camera similar to ones being tested in Boston (WBUR).

I asked about something I’ve been wondering about: whether they were still considering any measures to increase accountability, like body cameras or a civilian review board. The thoughtful response on body cameras was essentially “no, but we might pick this issue up again in the future”. Reasons cited included expense and legal concerns. In Massachusetts, the police aren’t allowed to record you without your permission, so this makes the cameras a logistical problem. Additionally, there are concerns that people won’t want to talk to the police if they fear being recorded. Chief Taylor did acknowledge that other cities, including Boston, are trying it, and that because of the increasing number of security cameras and cell phones, “that’s probably the way that things are going”.

A civilian review board hasn’t been discussed much, but Taylor said that the review process we have for police incidents works. I asked a follow-up to clarify whether it’s legal to film the police, and Captain Taylor said, “absolutely”. In fact, they said they seldom arrest somebody these days without someone filming it.

Many people expressed concerns about the current political climate, and the refrain from the police was along the lines of, “nothing in Lowell is going to change on January 21st”. A pointed question from a person who felt less safe because so many police unions had endorsed Trump got a candid answer from Kelly: “I can understand why some officers sided with Trump, while I hope they didn’t agree with everything he said.” He explained that attacks on officers are way up, many of them feel less safe and their families are worried about us coming home at night. Additionally, he said that he’s seeing some evidence that officers hesitate to use some methods now, because they “don’t want to end up on TV.” He said he tells officers that that’s good, but that it’s still their job to come home safe at night.

15355736_10209981832835749_9141968903883996996_nThe packed house for this event makes clear that the community is concerned, but also that the community is actively committed to working together. Frankly, I’ve lived in communities where not only would the police never attempt to invite community input, if they did tensions were high enough nobody would be able to have a real conversation. In Lowell, there really is a genuine effort to be open to criticism and to hearing the fears in the community.

If you have a bad experience, especially if you feel your treatment is unfair, Captain Taylor is very clear that he wants to hear about it. You can come in to the LPD’s Headquarters at 50 Arcand Drive to file a complaint in person. Or you can call the LPD’s Professional Standards Division at 978-674-4507, or you can fill out this form and mail it in. If you have a broader concern or you’d like for officers to meet with your community group or attend an event, I’d consider reaching out to Sara Kuhn, who’s the Director of Community Relations and a very warm, easy to talk to person. She’s reachable by phone at 978-674-1906 or email at Skhun@lowellma.gov.

(Featured Image courtesy Lowell PD Facebook)

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Hearing about the Route 38 Hearing

To follow up on our previous posts, I attended last week’s public hearing on the Route 38 project near Kittredge Park. Its purpose, in MassDOT’s words:

As part of the design process for this project, we are conducting this public hearing to explain the proposed improvements, listen to your comments and answer any questions you may have. At the conclusion of the hearing, MassDOT will review all of your comments and, where feasible, incorporate them into the design of the project.

Wait, first, what exactly is MassDOT’s Public Process?

Under state and federal law, the state has to allow citizens to comment on projects. I’ve looked into this a bit to try to figure out how the process works, so I’ll spend a little time on that here.  MassDOT’s guiding documents do put an emphasis on public participation. Their 2014 Public Participation Plan lists their values related to participation: Dedication, Respect, Innovation, Diversity, and Honesty (accuracy, understandability, and accessibility).

A project’s public life begins when it’s first put on the “Transportation Improvement Plan” or “TIP” before design begins. The Nesmith Street project was put onto the TIP because of a Road Safety Audit conducted in 2010. The regional planning agency annually requests comment about the TIP at meetings around Greater Lowell, reaching out through traditional media and email lists. I’ve heard mostly only people very interested in the transportation system—transportation planners and public officials—comment on the TIP. In fact, even though the Route 38 project was on the TIP, one public meeting participant asked why he had only heard of the project recently, from the Sun article.

The “Public Hearing” was another step of that public process. When a project has completed its environmental process, right before MassDOT formally accepts the preliminary design that will be developed into the final design, it holds a formal meeting to allow citizens to get their comments on the record. The way they conduct this review is highly regulated, including notice requirements and accessibility. A list of everything they have to consider is here. This is the last time for formal public participation, unless the project gets delayed or they encounter unforeseen environmental complications. I learned a lot about their process by reading Chapter 2 of their guide.

What happens at a session like this? They show their plans, which are 25% complete. This part of the meeting is both very detailed and lacking some of the most relevant information. I often struggled to follow what was being discussed, to see what was being discussed on the slide, and to understand the values that were being promoted. Other participants expressed confusion, too. I appreciate that they were willing to share their plans online (which surely should be standard) because it allowed a little more time to digest.

Nesmith Street Plan

This is an image of their plan for Nesmith Street. Grey is road widening, brown is sidewalks, and yellow is new greenspace. The City engineers put together a great Route 38 project website with all their materials here.

What was MassDOT’s presentation about Nesmith?

After a brief introduction by MassDOT, their consultant from Bayside Engineering then spoke about the project, which includes five intersections. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on Learning Lowell before (Nesmith/Merrimack and Nesmith/Andover), they are putting in new signals at Nesmith/Stackpole so they can be coordinated with the other signals; and they are doing a realignment and signal improvements at the intersection of the Route 38 highway at Boylston/Fairmount and Douglas/Phoenix.

Almost all the participants were interested in the Nesmith Street work, and that’s where the engineers spent most of their presentation. The consultant engineer presented several alternatives they had considered, then showed the audience which alternative had already been chosen.

There were several things common to all alternatives:

  • The outside edges of the sidewalks would stay in the same place, meaning only the sidewalks and what’s between them would change.
  • The project would improve crosswalks at both intersections, including handicap ramps.
  • It would make the signals a pedestrian-only phase, meaning people have to press a button and wait for the light to go through its cycle, but then all the lights will be red to make people crossing the road safer.
  • Finally, the project would make two of the curves between Andover and Nesmith a little more “square.” This will make cars turning onto Nesmith go just a little more slowly.

These changes were supported by the participants at the meeting. The differences between the alternatives? Whether they make Nesmith wider or not.

This leads to the big question: do the trees have to go? Does the road have to get wider? According to them, absolutely yes. The details for why are easily obscured by technical details, but I’ll do my best. They considered 4 options that save the trees and one that widened the road. The differences between the 4 options were which ways the lanes would go.

Five very simple diagrams of the options shown at MassDOT presentation

This is a simplified drawing I did to try to understand the different options, showing the direction traffic would go in each direction, with Andover Street being at the bottom and Merrimack being at the top. The numbers over each drawing are how wide the road would be, including lanes and shoulders. Option 4 is just keeping it the way it is, and option 5 has a left-turn lane that starts in the middle going in either direction.

Nesmith Street

The plan would remove the trees between road and sidewalk on both sides, resulting in 12 trees total removed.

Option 3 is the widened road. It would keep the 5’ sidewalk on the Kittredge Park side, but that sidewalk would have signs and electric poles added to it. The sidewalk would be on top of a retaining wall that would be almost 4’ at its tallest, but an average closer to 2’. The retaining wall would be stone masonry and have a decorative railing. The sidewalk on the other side would be narrowed to 5’, requiring removal of three additional trees. This is in the plans, but they did not mention this out loud, and I didn’t understand it until I was able to look at the plans online. I wonder how many people in the room did.

Modeling Traffic

The engineer did an analysis of each option, giving a letter grade that represents how long people would have to wait during morning and evening rush hour at each intersection. They also showed how long their model thinks cars would back up before each light turns green during rush hour.

Their model, which is set in the year 2024 and assumes that traffic will increase for the next ten years, showed that all the options would cause traffic to back up from Merrimack past Andover or vice-versa, but that the 4-lane option would cause the least amount (in evening rush hour, the traffic would back up from Merrimack to just past Andover). However, I’m still not sure how they figured that out, and just how bad traffic would be under options 1 or 2. It would be nice to understand better what they presented, because it’s so hard to know whether they’re hearing our values as they build their models.

Option 3 PM Queue Analysis Nesmith Street

This is an example of the “queue analysis” they showed us. The red and yellow lines represent how far they think cars will back up during a red light. All the analyses are on the city’s website.

Those models are worth talking about a little bit. They’re based on ever growing traffic numbers, which if they continue, would result in losing any gains over time as the number of cars on the road continues to grow with Boston’s sprawl. This goes to MassDOT’s overall focus: their concerns are at the state level. To them this is a state highway, not a neighborhood road.

Categorizing Roads

When they opened up for comments, someone asked why the neighborhood should have to bear the brunt of all this traffic. The answer was, in essence, because that’s the way it is.

State legislation in the 1990s mandated a process to classify roads—this is called “Functional Classification”. MassDOT worked with regional agencies to define every Massachusetts road into one of three nationally-understood categories: Arterials, Collectors, and Local Roadways. Nesmith Street was classified as an Arterial. According to MassDOT, “These roadways provide the highest level of mobility at the greatest vehicular speeds for the longest uninterrupted distances. Generally, these roadways provide connections between Massachusetts cities, metropolitan regions, and bordering states…”

The categories are further sub-divided based on whether they’re urban or rural, and whether they’re limited-access, major, or minor. The category of a road changes what design it gets. For example, the MassDOT Design Guide states that designers should try to put a minimum of 4’ shoulders in urban arterials and 11’ lanes in urban arterials. Local roads can be narrower. Whenever designers go beyond minimums or maximums, they have to get permission from a “Design Exception Committee” and the Federal Highway Administration if they’re getting federal funding.

It’s a deliberately difficult process to get roads recategorized. A town that wants to change the category of a road has to prove that land use and traffic patterns have changed, and the road is no longer used for travel between cities. It’s a reinforcing cycle: cars use a certain road to get between cities, and that road gets categorized as an arterial, and then local and state engineers design it to be easier to use as an arterial, then more cars use it to get between cities.

When asked about this, the MassDOT engineeres replied that there are only so many paths over the river into New Hampshire. Any path is going to be full of traffic. The neighborhood just has to accept it. Our local engineers did mention that because traffic is bad on Nesmith, cars are going on other local roads like East Merrimack. The engineers’ goal is to minimize the amount of traffic on roads that aren’t arterials.

Map with cut-throughs around Nesmith

A drawing I did showing some ways cars avoid Nesmith, cutting through other neighborhood roads

It’s really important to note that the engineer said they would not consider lanes narrower than 11’ and even called 11’ lanes “nice and tight”. According to the MassDOT design guide, lanes between 11’ and 12’ should be used for speeds above 45 MPH, traffic above 2,000 vehicles per day, or trucks and busses more than 30 per hour. Traffic on Nesmith is above 30,000 vehicles per day.

However, not everyone agrees that 11’ lanes are ideal in urban settings, even with high traffic volumes. The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guide recommends 10’ lanes in all but special circumstances, and Chapter 5 of the MassDOT guide itself mentions that 10’ lanes can be used in areas of limited right-of-way to provide greater separation between vehicles and pedestrians.

What did the neighborhood have to say?

There were about 30-40 residents in attendance, and perhaps a dozen spoke. MassDOT let city officials speak first, and city engineers read a letter from the City Manager supporting the project during the time. The meeting went late, after 9:00 pm, and many residents left before they had a chance to speak. However, the library was kind enough to stay open that everyone who waited could have their say.

There were concerns big and small. Nobody commented that they thought making the road wider was a good idea. Many liked the idea of better timed lights and pedestrian crossings, as well as clearer lane markings. Lots of people were disappointed in the potential loss of the trees, and many were worried about traffic speeding up and getting noisier. Nobody was excited about a long and disruptive traffic project. Some had more specific concerns, such as the design of the retaining wall or the accommodation of bicycles.

One participant asked whether MassDOT or the City was thinking about the entire road system holistically and the problem of there being not enough routes for cars travelling through (not to) Lowell, and the city engineers said that it was a problem faced by all communities, not just Lowell, and that, “We’re working on it.” Jane Calvin argued that the health of trees, or that the wrong type of trees were planted, should never be an argument to remove a tree planting strip, as that can be fixed without removing the strip. She also pointed to a City ordinance that said that the City would need to replace each tree they cut down with an equivalent tree or trees elsewhere. The Sun wrote up a great story about it, talking about both sides’ positions.

Does the fact that a dozen residents voiced concerns matter? Probably not. I have to be honest with this post: it’s very likely that there’s very little that can be done about this situation. While MassDOT is fulfilling its legal obligation to show us their plans, they have very little motivation to change them at this point. When people voiced concerns, they generally defended their existing design. For example, they showed a picture of the least healthy tree in the area when talking about the trees, and they said they believed the retaining wall would serve a similar traffic calming function.

They’ve spent a lot of time on this getting it the way they think it should be, and hearing residents say “we think it will be less safe” isn’t going to change an expert’s mind. They’re committed professionals, of course they believe in what they’re presenting. It would take a massive pushback, universal and noisy, and including our state representatives to alter the course of things now.

Should we try? I think so. This isn’t the engineers’ and planners’ fault. They work with the information they have, and with the parameters they’ve been given. Chris works with the city folks that helped in this process, and they’re good people, working every day to build a better Lowell for everyone. They were eager to offer to explain the process to residents with detailed questions, and they even offered to meet with residents to do a walk-through of the area in question. It’s not helpful to frame city or state folks as villains. They’re convinced based on their research that this is the best course of action for the greatest number.

If we’re going to build a Lowell where trees and pedestrians matter as much as cars, they’re going to have to hear from us as a community that these things matter to us, and they’re going to have to hear it a lot. They hear a lot of complaints from drivers! We will probably lose some of these debates along the way, unfortunately. But sea change is possible, even if it takes longer than we want it to.

How to Comment

The last day to send comments to MassDOT is 10 days from the hearing date, so that means any comments must be postmarked by this Wednesday! If you want to sign the petition to save the trees, click on this link and do it by Tuesday before 3:00 pm, when it will be mailed to MassDOT. Here’s the full info:

Written statements and other exhibits in place of, or in addition to, oral statements made at the Public Hearing regarding the proposed undertaking are to be submitted to Patricia A. Leavenworth, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, Attention: Roadway Project Management, Project File No. 606189. Such submissions will also be accepted at the hearing. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public hearing transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Hearing. Project inquiries may be emailed to dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us.

Doing DIY Lowell

You may have noticed that we haven’t posted too many articles lately. Part of the reason is that we’re involved in few community initiatives, including “DIY Lowell.” Now that the DIY Lowell website is up and running, we wanted to share our story.

D.I.Y. LowellDIY Lowell is an initiative to try to capture all the ideas for projects and events people have and help them make those ideas a reality. For example, someone may have an idea for a temporary art exhibit, share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. We want to help connect that person with an artist, with someone who knows how to get the permits, and with some funding.

We’re doing this by inviting everyone to share ideas on a forum and in dropboxes around town until June 15. On June 20 until the end of June, the ideas will be up for a vote by anyone who registers for a summit. Our goal is to narrow down the ideas to a small handful that summit attendees would be interested in working on. We have a few guidelines: ideas can’t be expected to cost more than $1,000, they should be completed by the end of the year, they have to relate to space open to the public, and they can’t be illegal.

On July 9, the summit will gather DIY Lowell participants and organizational partners to create action plans for the ideas. A number of very talented folks have volunteered to lead breakout groups about each winning idea, and many organizations have pledged to attend the summit to offer their suggestions on how to kick the ideas off. Citizen working groups formed at the summit will move the ideas forward.

What about after the summit? Well, most exciting, we’ve identified some funding, and we are moving forward with some other fundraising ideas soon. In addition, we’ll keep track of all the projects and offer a helping hand when necessary, connecting those citizen working groups with the help they need.

Why are we doing all this? It’s not just to put a few projects into action, but also to identify the common barriers our working groups face. We’re interested in bringing more voices into the community conversation and encouraging folks who might not have time for a huge commitment to take on a small piece of a small project.

The DIY Lowell Story

The genesis of DIY Lowell was actually in Buffalo, during the Congress for New Urbanism Annual Meeting. One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening.

This inspired Aurora and I to come up with a few ideas of our own for Lowell. We thought some chalking or painting of the concrete jersey barriers across from our apartment would spruce up Bridge Street. We talked about a trail that would lead from the National Park Visitor Center to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum just like a small version of the Boston Freedom Trail. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there could be something bigger than just a project or two.

People talking at Mill no 5 during Transform Mill City

Transform Mill City drew a variety of folks to Mill No. 5 before Coffee and Cotton was in business

We were really impressed with the number of Lowell folks who came and participated in the “Transform Mill City” initiative. This series of meetings hosted by a student from UMass Lowell allowed more than forty participants to each meeting to share ideas on giant sticky notes on walls or tables with questions such as “What events would you like to see in Lowell that aren’t here already?” Some popular ideas were a “Firewater” display on the canals and a series of art events or markets.

This wasn’t the only idea-generating initiative in Lowell. The City spearheaded Neighborland a couple of years ago, and it collected ideas via an online website and stickers on an empty downtown storefront. Ideas included an independent theater, free downtown wifi, an expanded Farmer’s Market, and even bocce courts.

What if, however, we combined the two ideas? In school, I ran an organization that accepted project proposals and offered technical support to villages and towns too small to have their own planning departments. There’s a lot of expertise in Lowell already, and we could connect that expertise to these great ideas that sometimes seem to fizzle away. It could be democratic, where the most popular ideas are the ones that get the most attention.

That’s when we started meeting with a lot of people. It’s amazing how many people you can meet with when you’re trying to talk to every group that could be interested in the effort. I started with Yovani Baez, the City of Lowell Neighborhood Planner. She suggested meeting with a few more people, and those folks suggested others, and it soon snowballed. I had to make an excel spreadsheet with the people I met, the people they suggested to talk to, and the ideas on how we could execute our plan.

All in all, Aurora or I emailed or talked to nearly 70 people in the City before we finalized our pitch, including people from the City of Lowell, E for All, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Coalition for a Better Acre, Made in Lowell, COOL, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Makes, all the neighborhood groups, a few churches, and a lot of other organizations and groups. During that time, we even took a tactical urbanism tour of the Acre with ACTION.

Each interview helped us form our idea. Just to think of a small handful of examples: Marianne Gries told us to make sure our website was smartphone-compatible for those without computers; Souvanna Pouv suggested doing interviews on LTC shows to market the idea; Geoff Foster reminded us to use examples in every neighborhood in Lowell; Sean Thibodeau recommending throwing an event on a weekday, not a weekend.

DIY Lowell mock-up webpage

diylowellwebsite

We created a mock-up to get feedback from our advisory committee, and with help from the community, we made it into a real webpage

Do-it-Ourselves Lowell

Although we kicked off DIY Lowell, we could never have done any of it alone.

I have to credit Aurora with coming up with the name “Do-it-Yourself Lowell,” or DIY Lowell for short. Her idea was that the organization was all about people feeling like they could take ownership of their city through these small, achievable projects. These ideas aren’t that hard or expensive to put into practice, but most people don’t have the tools, time, or contacts to make their ideas a reality on their own. We hope DIY Lowell will really let people do-it-themselves together.

A lot of others offered invaluable help as well. We’re finding volunteers through the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, CBA is providing assistance with fund management, a local blog is hosting our website, and we may even be able to hold the DIY Lowell summit in a really cool community space for free. We’re amazingly indebted to our Steering Committee who helped us through decisions such as when to do fundraising, what guidelines to put in place for projects, and how to set up our website.

With all this time invested, you may be wondering why we personally are doing all this work. In a word, it’s fun. We’ve met so many people and we’re hoping to add to what we see happening in Lowell already: a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s a lot better than watching reruns.

Swap your Stuff, Build Community

I haven’t blogged much about the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange since we wrote our post about it last year, but in the meantime we’ve become members, both benefited from and offered our time to others, and I joined the Advisory Committee. Because I’m on the Advisory Committee, I get to help organize events like Saturday’s Community Swap, which is a really fun event. It’s a giant rummage sale, but without the sale part: everything’s free! You can bring stuff you’d like to get rid off, too, this is an excellent place to direct all of the no use to you but still useful stuff you’ve been spring cleaning out of your closet and basement.

This event is on Saturday from 12:30pm – 4:30pm at the Lowell Senior Center (on Broadway across from Market Basket). There’s a facebook page here and you can also contact Joy, the coordinator at 978-452-7523 x 815. Chris and I went to the fall version of this and it was really fun, we went home with books, kitchen stuff and a badly needed ironing board.

I love the Time Exchange, which is run by Coalition for a Better Acre. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors, and get help for exactly the kind of things you want your neighbors to help with. The main way we’ve used it so far is petsitting: it’s such a pleasure to leave our pets with someone and go on a vacation without fretting about how much it will cost, and they’ve gotten great care. I’ve scrubbed floors, helped hang pictures, reorginized kitchen cabinets. Chris has done spring cleaning and helped a community organization with their grant process. We both shoveled snow during this crazy winter.

Lots of people need help but are bad at asking for it. Nobody wants to feel like a charity case. The Time Exchange is a way for people to reach out and ask for help and offer to help, a structure to help community grow the way we’d all like it to be. When you join the Time Exchange, you post offers of things you’re willing to do, everything from basic skills to things you’ve learned to do with special training. When you need something, you post a request on the online board, or search the offers of others to see if there’s already a good fit. You earn hours by helping, you spend them when you get help. Important to the concept is the idea that everyone can do something, everyone has something to offer. An hour is always an hour, everyone’s time is worth the same.

I’d really encourage anyone whose thinking about getting involved to join, there’s no reason not to and you’d be surprised how handy it can be. I’d be happy to chat with anyone who wants to know a little more, or if you have tough questions you can contact Joy at 978-452-7523 x 815.

An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

Yesterday, we posted about the Manager-Council form of government and the typical background of City Managers. Today, we’re looking at the City Manager recruitment process. Pundits consider State Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representatives Kevin Murphy and Tom Golden, and former City Councilor and current Vice President at MassDevelopment George Ramirez as “top runners” for the position (See Lowell Live Feed here and here). However, nobody will know who has applied until the application period closes February 28th and the City Council determines how to proceed.

What do professional associations recommend?

MMMAInternational City County Managers AssociationIn the last post, I mentioned the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). ICMA and the commonwealth-focused Massachusetts Municipal Management Association (MMMA) give guidance on manager recruitment. ICMA recommends acting “thoughtfully and deliberately,” giving at least 60 days before an application deadline, 30 days to interview candidates, and 30 days to let an administrator relocate. Lowell’s application period is open only 36 days, but the City’s proposed schedule otherwise fits within those guidelines. Because of the long timeline, both MMMA and ICMA recommend appointing an interim administrator when faced with an unexpected vacancy—perhaps a qualified internal candidate or a retired or between-jobs City Manager.

Lowell’s City Council may follow this route. According to the Lowell Sun, Mayor Elliott said, “If there is a need to, we have to put somebody in place until a new manager comes on board.” The Sun contacted a “name making the rounds” for the position, Robert Healy, who said he would be open to acting as an interim City Manager if need be (2006 Sun story about Mr. Healy’s history here).

Most professionals recommend delaying major initiatives and leaving executive leadership positions vacant during transitions, and ICMA suggests the ability for a new CM to “build a team” can be a recruitment tool. City Manager Lynch has stated he will not fill Lowell’s vacant Chief Financial Officer position, and Director of Planning and Development Adam Baacke will leave at about the same time as Mr. Lynch. ICMA cautions against public quarrels with the outgoing City Manager and “overcompensating” by selecting a new manager based solely on the qualities they were dissatisfied about the old.

City Manager Boston Globe ad

City Manager Boston Globe ad (richardhowe.com)

Many city councils hire an outside firm to assist with recruitment, while others, like Lowell, cooperate with existing HR staff. ICMA suggests the council consult with all department directors to develop lists of necessary “hard” and “soft” skills. Occasionally, a council will also engage with the public to develop a profile. The best results come from ads on professional websites (such as ICMA, MMMA, the National League of Cities, or MA Municipal Association) rather than print newspapers. Finally, ICMA suggests that a city council, cooperations with HR staff, should send letters to qualified people identified by the outgoing manager, other city administrators, universities, or other knowledgeable sources.

Lowell’s ad went to the ICMA, Massachusetts Municipal Association, Lowell Sun (this includes Monster.com), Boston Globe (this also includes Monster.com), and the city’s website.

Common criteria for selection

I’ve seen recommendations to narrow the pool of applicants to as low as five and as many as fifteen finalists, with interviews either in open or executive sessions for each candidate. MMMA has a list of suggestions for screening criteria:

  • Experience working with a government of comparable size providing comparable services
  • Experience working in a similar geographic area, either rural or urban
  • Accomplishments that line up with goals of the community
  • Supervisory/managerial experience
  • Employment history and salary considerations
  • History of continuing professional development, including active membership in ICMA, MMMA, or a similar organization, and being a Credentialed Manager

Very often, councils pursue a second round of interviews. Sometimes, they engage the community or city staff in one or both interviews. Finally, ICMA recommends that the City carefully choose a frontrunner on which they can reach consensus and a unanimous vote.

What are Lowellians looking for in a City Manager?

I would like to suggest a few ideas and thoughts to continue the community conversation:

  • At the end of the special meeting on January 15, Councilor Mercier said “I’m just requesting public participation,” and Councilor Samaras added, “I think we should have a process that would allow them to come before us to talk about what are the issues that concern them, what are they looking for in the next City Manager?” I agree with these sentiments, and may suggest “listening sessions” similar to the sessions that City Manager Lynch conducted when selecting a new police superintendent. These sessions can target both the general public and specific groups.
  • I would like to see qualified applicants be able to identify strategies to advance the goals and tackle specific action items identified in Lowell’s comprehensive plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025.
  • I think it is less important that a candidate is from Greater Lowell, and more important that he or she has experience in cities of similar makeup: Mid-sized, postindustrial cities that are pieces of larger regional corridors. Cities with a tourism market, creative economy potential, and diverse and hard-to-reach populations. That said, there are advantages that someone from the area will have over someone unfamiliar with Merrimack Valley laws, customs, and traditions.
  • I would like to see applicants have experience negotiating and building relationships with unions and having demonstrated fair and sustainable compensation agreements. ICMA suggests that before a final hire, the City Council should visit the candidate’s community and speak with staff that worked with him or her. I may support this if allowed under Massachusetts law.
  • I hope the City Council and HR department work together to reach out to University alumni lists, professional networks, and other sources to encourage a diverse pool of applicants.

I hope interested citizens can continue this discussion in the comments, on Facebook, or over coffee. Understandably, many are worried about finding a City Manager as quickly as possible. However, we have until February 28th to articulate to the council what we would like to see.

“What do you want in a police chief?” asks the City Manager

Lowell Police Department and monument

Lowell Police Department. Visit their site at http://www.lowellpolice.com

Last Thursday, City Manager Lynch, CFO Tom Moses, Solicitor Christine O’Conner, HR Director Mary Callery, and Executive Assistant Lynda Clark held the public listening session to discuss attributes the public desires in a new Police Superintendent. Unfortunately, this session competed with both the first of the three Sun Candidate Forums and a Red Sox World Series game–something the City Manager apologized for. It perhaps contributed to the slim turnout of about half a dozen. This meant Aurora and I composed a third of the focus group! A streetworker from UTEC, a reporter from the Sun, a fellow from the Senior Center actually just there to get photos, and a long-term resident rounded out the group. I’ll try to summarize what was discussed, but I’m largely working from memory.

This did mean everyone got plenty of time to speak. It might not be a surprise that everyone there desired a focus on community policing: reopening of closed precinct offices, police on foot, and events to build trust between police and residents. On the topic of trust-building, I asked if Lowell had any type of Citizen Oversight Committee, an outside, elected lay committee that works with the police to investigate complaints (click here for a report on these type of committees). This isn’t to suggest LPD needs such a committee, but I feel openness to ideas such as this is important for a police chief wishing to build trust with a community. Mr. Moses apparently used to work for Cambridge, so is familiar with their Police Review & Advisory Board. This idea might have some traction: later, I realized Candidate Van Pech is proposing a Human Rights Commission that would work toward many of the same goals, and Mr. Lynch was aware of the conversation. I’d like to note that such boards do take dedicated volunteer hours and City staff support, which are both finite resources.

Stories were used to illustrate points: One of the attendees relayed a story of lingering around the scene of a routine car stop for quite some time afterward, seemingly only talking to one another. Although generally trusting that police are doing their best, this made her question that belief. The UTEC streetworker discussed the distrust of police from those he works with. We brought up the question of diversity and number of women in the force, and another added on the importance of understanding cultural differences, something of which Mr. Lynch seemed keenly aware. During these stories, all five from the City took careful notes.

Another important point discussed was continuing to break the divisions between urban planning, education, code enforcement, and policing. Surprisingly, although I’m an urban planner, it wasn’t I who brought it up! One of the residents believed designing streets for lower speeds would encourage slower driving and free up police for tasks other than traffic control. He also mentioned the importance of broken-window theory: that repairing and cleaning areas after vandalism keep neighborhoods from spiraling into more serious crimes. There’s debate whether this is actually true (I don’t normally link to Wikipedia, but this is a good review of studies about it), but a 2005 study that took place in Lowell found “cleaned up” areas had a 20% reduction in calls to police compared to the “control” group. The results were discussed back in 2009. The City Manager said the City was very familiar with the strategy. I’ve heard their anti-vandalism unit responds quickly to complaints (SeeClickFix was released to assist residents register complaints in 2012).

The group from the City was asked what groups at other stakeholder-specific sessions discussed, but largely it was the same things we did. The City mentioned the business community said they knew Lowell is safe for visitors, but wanted a visible police force to make them feel safe. One interesting question that was brought up was whether it was more important to bring an outside perspective or an intimate knowledge of Lowell. The City staff reported the search was much more complex than he anticipated, but wanted to do it right, because the choice would affect the City for decades to come.