By: John MacDonald – June, 2017
I attended the controversial special meeting at Lowell City Hall on Tuesday June 20th. As a witness to history I watched the vote for the future location of Lowell High School (LHS) take place at approximately 12:25am. After six hours of prepared remarks from seventy registered speakers that varied from professional reasoning to flat out personal attacks, the final vote from Lowell City council was 5 – 4 in favor of Option 5… a new high school to be built at Cawley Stadium.
The large balance of the evening took on a very negative tone from what turned out to be the losing side of the argument… Option 3 proponents, which would have kept the High School at its current location in downtown Lowell. Adults and numerous high school students lined up one after the other to speak on their opinion, as to where the high school for the next fifty to one-hundred years should be located. Although many speakers were respectful, a good portion of the speakers and the crowd were not. In what appeared to be an orchestrated attempt by proponents of Option 3 to change minds on the City Council, many comments from speakers defamed, criticized, targeted and tried to embarrass the councilors that had already announced their support for Option 5. A small portion of Lowell High School students screamed, snapped their fingers and showed disrespect throughout the night. I have always encouraged young adults and kids to participate and engage in the political process, but it didn’t appear as though they had much adult supervision or guidance in this instance, as some students lobbed and alleged serious insults. Students eluded to unfounded improprieties towards city councilors they disagreed with. In addition, the students had a few bad examples to follow that came directly from City Councilors that openly attacked one another as the night progressed. Often the night took on an embarrassing tone, which originally was supposed to reflect the best of what Lowell has to offer in the future.
There were some positive highlights from many residents throughout the city. One of the examples that stood out to me was when Lowell resident and Lowell High Alum, Paul Haley stood at the microphone. Paul a proponent of Option 5 spoke about his pride for LHS, unity and honoring our forefathers by being respectful of the outcome. As a friend of Paul’s, it made me proud to see his leadership displayed in public and for his attempt to bring a positive tone to an evening that was tough for all involved.
Then as the many speakers dwindled to the last few, a Lowell resident (whom I respect) approached the microphone and presented her views on the leadership of the council during the entire process. Her opinion was that the city council itself lacked leadership and then presented a petition signed by ten Lowell residents to place a non-binding referendum on the ballot for Lowell residents to vote on the High School location. The petition was accepted and then after a few more speakers the evening came down to the city council and their official votes.
Before the vote, Mayor Kennedy made a last-ditch attempt to try and sway fellow councilors that had previously expressed support for Option 5. Kennedy made a motion to ask that the council support the petition of ten residents and the question to be allowed on the ballot for the upcoming election in November. Much discussion took place amongst the council and often the tone was critical of one another and embarrassing, especially coming from elected leaders. The motion was defeated… 5 – 4 opposed.
I’ve been watching City Councilor Milinazzo through the years and it’s surprising to me to see him loose his composure, so much lately. This meeting was no different unfortunately for Jim, as he openly attacked councilors that disagreed with his own opinion. He also verbally berated City Councilor Rita Mercier and then eluded to underhanded dealings and threats as to why City Councilor Corey Belanger changed his vote from Option 3 to supporting Option 5. After he argued that there was a leadership void in the discussion over the high school and that there were too many rumors and misinformation, Milinazzo then spun into his own rumors regarding Belanger. After Jim was done criticizing his fellow councilors he pointed out a section of the attending crowd of citizens and then criticized them. A very poor performance by a guy many (including myself) have respected through the years.
City Councilor Leahy also added a twinge of disrespect for his colleagues as he seemed to revel in the art form of eye rolls and unflattering facial expressions of the people he disagreed with. Voting Option 3 and cementing his stance as an anti-business city councilor.
City Councilor Samaras rolled into his usual routine of reiterating specific language regarding motions and expressed his support for the Option 3 Downtown plan. Despite the concerns for high school kids that would be exposed to construction, Samaras overlooked that and proclaimed that the environment during construction would be safe and with it his support for Option 3. Despite the shenanigans Samaras maintained his composure and acted like a professional throughout the process and demonstrating the leadership he’s shown towards generations of kids flowing through Lowell High School.
City Councilor Corey Belanger kept silent for most of the meeting until it was his turn to speak. He erupted into an explanation of why he had originally been for the Cawley option and then waffled between the downtown option and then back to Cawley. His simple explanation was skyrocketing costs associated with the project. Belanger also deflected the rumors and accusations coming from Councilor Milinazzo that somehow Belanger had been bought off, by campaign contributions… an accusation that was also thrown at Councilor Rita Mercier and Rodney Elliott by uniformed and rumor based accusers. A flabbergasted Belanger swung back at his critics and offered to put aside these slights (for now) to place his vote in place for the Option 5 Cawley site. Heavily wounded politically by this process, Belanger swung back and didn’t back down.
Rita Mercier was classic… Rita. Vocal during the night and openly challenging those who would attempt to spread rumors about her and her colleagues at the podium. Councilor Mercier bellowed back at accusers and fellow councilors that eluded to a rumor that she had been “paid off”. A ridiculous accusation to the most precious and beloved City Councilor, serving for the last twenty plus years. In classic Rita style, she pronounced her opinion and position in favor of Option 5. Apologizing for disappointing some who may have been in favor of other options, Rita delved into a volley of “this is for you” statements in support of Cawley. A decent night for the most beloved political figure in modern Lowell history. As usual, she held her own.
City Councilor Jim Leary was a true leader in this heated night of controversy. Professional, commonsensical, informed and argued without raising his voice to make his point. Jim demonstrated the leadership needed to combat some of the erroneous statements being made during the night. Making his statement count, Leary navigated through his reasons as to why his opinion had evolved from Option 3 to Option 5. Jim expressed wanting to compete with other communities for students and wanted a state of the art educational facility that would eliminate safety concerns and provide a facility that would attract parents to the community. A- Plus for Jim Leary and a vote for Option 5.
Then Mayor Kennedy. Kennedy had made his points during his attempt at the failed motion for a voter’s referendum and voted for Option 3 without much comment. Until, City Councilor Rodney Elliott’s turn to speak. Holding true to his direct style and reputation as a fiscal watchdog, Elliott jumped into an explanation of why the downtown location would be a boon for future economic development and was one of the reasons he voted to move the High School to Cawley Stadium. “Where else are we going to generate tax revenue to pay for the High School? The old high school can be converted into a tax generating property that can fund many projects for years to come and can turn the tides positive to an economic development mecca.” Elliott said. Then Elliott referred to his prior motion that had been made months before about a similar attempt to put the voters in the driver’s seat with a vote…. that Kennedy has voted against. “So now that you’re going to lose, you want to vote for a referendum to put on the ballot?’ said Elliott. Mayor Kennedy erupted. Kennedy with a penchant for emotional outbursts and over use of his gavel, flew into a red-faced tirade and interrupted Elliott.
Elliott continued and asked not to be interrupted. Kennedy made more unprofessional comments, but eventually yielded the floor to Elliott. Rodney continued and explained how he kept asking himself “If I were sending my child to a high school during construction… would I? If I had kids going to the High School would I want to subject them to hazardous materials or modular class rooms? I kept telling myself no.” “If I wouldn’t do it to my kids, then I won’t vote to do it to yours!” said Elliott as he sealed the deal for Cawley and Option 5.
Then last, but not least… Cawley activist and City Councilor Danny Rourke didn’t speak much, but paid close attention to the speakers and was respectful of his fellow city councilors. Appearing stately and strong, Rourke projected a sense of leadership, whereas the less said… is more. In my opinion Rourke cemented himself as a potential future Mayor and once again, being on the right side of a major issue. Shedding his past reputation getting involved with too much and trying to please everyone, Rourke led the charge on the council for the Cawley location and never wavered. He demonstrated the best of his age group during this long debate, which appears to be spawning a new politically active generation. From that… a pool of potential candidates for Lowell City Council and School Committee. Danny’s coat tails may surpass those of his well-liked and popular State Representative cousin… Tipper Golden. Candidates like Dan Finn, Matt Lelacheaur for City Council. Noelle Rowe Creegan and Dan Shanahan for Lowell School Committee are all strong contenders and part of the “Danny” generation.
Finally, it’s my hope that after the dust settles and wounds heal that Lowell will once again become that shining city on the hill. Lowell’s rich history and once worldwide reputation for innovation that came from the beginning of the industrial revolution, can be realized legitimately. The big pieces that will spur interest in the city and allow Lowell to compete was officially ushered in at City Hall during this vote. The 5-4 vote to move the high school to the Cawley Stadium location, places Lowell in the driver’s seat. The driver’s seat relative to attracting families to Lowell for generations with a new state of the art High School that can compete with other more affluent communities. Lowell will attract families from all income brackets and will breed success. With its outstanding teachers, Lowell will provide future generations the best education in the best facility. In addition, by moving the high school out of the downtown, Lowell will be able to realize potential from an economic development point of view. Could Lowell finally take real advantage of its National Park and become a destination for conventions? By moving the High School from downtown, will retail businesses be able to operate normal retail hours and cater to Lowell’s downtown residents and tourists?
I don’t know all the answers, but what I do know if that Lowell has more opportunities that it does problems. I am optimistic the revolution we have experienced during this controversial vote with turn into an evolution for Lowell. Will you be positive contributor to it? I hope so.