By: Gerry Nutter – October, 2011
The City of Lowell operates under the Plan E form of Government. That forms calls for the City Council to be the presiding body, hire a City Manager to run the day to day activity and have an Auditor and the City Clerk as the only other two departments that report directly to them.
In June of this year, it was brought to the attention of city officials that the City Clerk Richard Johnson may be helping himself to some petty cash. The Police were notified, a camera set up and the clerk caught. A trial date is pending and he has resigned. Several extenuating circumstances contributed to his actions.
While the Clerk was suspended pending the police investigation the Mayor chose a recent former Asst. City Solicitor to be “Acting” Clerk for 60 days to “give the office a fresh set of eyes.” At the time he also stated that this person would NOT be a candidate for the full-time job.
That quickly turned into the “Acting” Clerk wanting the full-time job, a former City Councilor claiming interest and the Asst. City Clerk convinced the Mayor and others were out to get her, fighting for her reputation.
Well the entire City Clerk’s Office is a mess according to a report by the “Acting” Clerk and the Mayor and present council have handled the matter like an episode of Dallas, filled with politics, backroom deals and a mysterious job description.
It includes appointing the Mayor’s choice as Acting Clerk, leaking innuendo and rumors about the Asst. Clerk, having the Council NOT extent the Mayor’s choice but appointing the Asst. Clerk and a job description that included being responsible for the Elections which the Clerk has NEVER done under the current Plan E system. Then the next day more leaks about the assistant’s role in the original clerk’s actions.
The Mayor then calling an Executive session to discuss her role and her choice to make it an open and public meeting and finally both the Mayor’s choice and the council choice, the current Asst. BOTH claiming they don’t want the Acting or permanent job and now they are going to appoint a different current Asst. Solicitor who CAN”T be at Council meetings on Tuesday even if that is part of the job requirements.
This council looks like the gang that can’t shoot straight and look foolish in their conduct and actions. The City Manager for a change isn’t getting any blame because the Clerk’s office doesn’t report to him.
This highlights the inability of a part time city council being able to supervise vital city departments. Plan E states clearly that the Clerk, Auditor and Manager work for the Council. However it offers no guidance or direction about how 9 people who work part time as councilors are supposed to supervise a department that they know nothing about.
This department had no written policy or procedures, no job descriptions and would not give customers receipts that had any traceable accounting, just a piece of paper that said City Clerk’s office. No one conducted audits even though this department handled cash on a regular basis and not one councilor new anything about the day to day functions, yet they are responsible for that dept.
The City Council had no one monitoring an office that they by charter control. You would think in an election year at least one or two challengers would call them out on this, sadly no, they have not, and they have had to be prodded and provoked to make any comment.
You wonder why someone hasn’t taken this up to suggest a full blown Charter Review to move the Clerk’s Office under the control of the City Manager and away from the council who have shown the inability to watch over the everyday events in this department.
Plan E doesn’t give any Council the ability to supervise a department and as a result the Clerk’s Office in Lowell has been allowed to run autonomously.
City Councilor Edward “Bud” Caulfield said that although the city clerk works for the council, “Let’s be honest, the only concern we have about the clerk’s office is how many times we can run down there to file a motion.”
The entire episode shows that the current Pan E system needs to be looked at and while some have tried to get a Charter review commission appointed, especially after the council canceling past primary elections, this council has dragged their feet and buried any attempt at a charter review.
It is too bad that during an election year no candidate is stepping forward to try and create a real issue and point out a huge flaw in the Plan E system that needs to be addressed before we repeat this episode again in future years.
Read Gerry Nutter’s Blog at gerrynutterslowell.com or email him at GNutter@docuserve.com