Lowell High construction partners show contempt for councilors
SUFFOLK CONSTRUCTION had $3.9 billion in revenue in 2020, according to Forbes Magazine. Skanska had $6.4 billion, according to its website.
For a wealthy construction firm with projects across the United States, the figure of $38.5 million probably seems like a drop in the bucket — especially when the local taxpayer is on the line and not them.
After all, Suffolk Construction’s CEO John Fish was one of the main proponents behind the ill-fated Boston 2024 Olympic bid.
On Tuesday, as Councilor Rita Mercier took the firms to task over the $38.5 million construction overrun and the change in narrative since January, it almost seemed that Suffolk Construction Project Executive Rex Radloff had contempt for the council and the city they represent.
As Mercier spoke, Radloff sat on the back bench with his arms crossed, repeatedly shaking his head.
The median annual income of a Lowellian is $56,878 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which also states that 19% of the city lives below the poverty line. Like the pioneers who built the city, Lowell is as blue collar as it gets.
It’s almost as if there is disdain on the part of Skanska and Suffolk Construction, as exemplified by Radloff when Mercier was speaking.
While Mercier’s suggestion of using the entire contingency amount toward the project may not be feasible, representatives from Suffolk and Skanska showed no willingness to commit even a penny of their own money toward the overrun — not from the contingency or from their own bottom line.
Adding to Mercier’s concerns is that work hasn’t started on updating the 1922 or 1980 buildings. While project executives assured the council they had been able to probe the school’s walls and understand what’s behind them, Mercier wasn’t as certain.
“God knows what they’re going to find in those walls,” Mercier said. “I’m not psychic, I know I’m a Rita but I’m not a Rita reader, but I think for one time we’re going to see a lot more money coming to be bonded.”
The assurances that they knew what they were going to encounter prompted the suggestion of using the entire contingency amount toward the overrun — especially if the overrun was completely due to COVID-19 marketplace fluctuations.
Through the conversation, Skanska’s Mary Ann Williams got combative with councilors when responding to their hard line of questioning. But as Mayor Sokhary Chau pointed out, it is a conversation dealing with the council’s obligation to the taxpayers.
“Lowell is a working class city. We work and we have so many bills. When you think about $38 million, that’s really on the back of the taxpayers and we’re talking about we don’t have a choice, we need to complete this high school as drawn, as promised to make it the best for the kids,” Chau said.
Chau continued, adding that $38.5 million isn’t a small amount of money for the average Lowellian and businesses within the community weren’t acting this way in the face of COVID-19.
“I have seen on an individual level, small business contractors, when they made a mistake, they ate up some of the costs. They eat up some of their profits,” Chau said. “Tonight, we’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t know what the profits are but really there’s no apologies from all of the parties involved.”
While Chau said he understood COVID-19 and the situation with cost increases, he wanted the project executives to keep the working class nature of Lowell in mind as they proceeded. This isn’t a city where they will be allowed to fail again, he said, and others aren’t willing to be as gracious.
“It doesn’t look like the major stakeholders, that stand to benefit the most, really suffered anything besides the taxpayers,” he said.
None of the five construction representatives in attendance responded to Chau’s comments. Instead, they chose to leave the chamber.
The phone to nowhere
THE LINES of communication between the City Council and the city manager don’t seem to be working well in Eileen Donoghue’s final days in office.
This week, Councilor Mercier made it clear in no uncertain terms that she had learned more information from local media outlets than the manager’s office.
Mercier said the first time she heard of the Owner’s, Architect and Contractors Committee was in last Sunday’s newspaper.
The first time she heard of the overrun on the Lowell High School project was while listening to WCAP radio in the afternoon, before the March 8 council meeting.
Issues again presented themselves this week when some members of the City Council did not learn of Donoghue’s choice of Barry Golner as the interim police superintendent until after receiving phone calls from members of the Lowell Police Department.
Another councilor said they first found out from the Twitter account of a Sun reporter, who had also obtained the information.
At 10:22 a.m. Thursday, Donoghue finally notified councilors of her selection, after a breakfast for outgoing Superintendent Kelly Richardson was underway at the police headquarters.
“Mayor Chau & Councilors, I will be appointing Deputy Barry Golner to be the interim Superintendent of LPD this afternoon. Let me know if you have any questions. Eileen,” Donoghue wrote in a text message obtained by The Column.
There were also murmurs that some councilors felt slighted about not being invited to the send-off breakfast for Richardson, or learning about it too late to attend.
The breakfast was largely attended by officers, other Police Department staff and close friends and family of Richardson. Former police Superintendent Ed Davis loomed over his former colleagues in the room.
In attendance for the breakfast was state Rep. Rady Mom, D-Lowell, who presented a citation to Richardson on behalf of him and state Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell. Donoghue and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and were also present.
When asked about the rumors over the guest list, Richardson said Thursday afternoon that the breakfast was meant to be more of an intimate, internal event for officers to say their goodbyes than a public affair, but he’d assumed that councilors were aware of it.
High praise offered for Richardson
THERE WAS a reception for Richardson that councilors were invited to on Tuesday.
Mayor Chau hosted a reception for Richardson in the Mayor’s Reception Room and Irish step dancers from the Heavey Quinn School of Irish Dance performed in the lobby of City Hall.
A voice from the crowd urged Richardson to dance, however, he didn’t have his dancing shoes with him — otherwise he just might have.
During the council meeting, Chau presented Richardson with a citation, which would be the first of many gifts over his final 48 hours in office.
“I’ve only known him for a short period of time,” Chau said. “Working with him has really shown me what law enforcement can do to change the landscape of a gateway city like Lowell. He got his start a long, long time ago as a very young man and is part of the changing landscape of the city and he has left the city a much safer place.”
Councilor Dan Rourke said he and Richardson went back a long ways personally and about a decade professionally. Their fathers were friends before them.
“You are somebody that served your city to the highest degree and I don’t think you should skip the part about the accreditation that came about a couple weeks ago,” Rourke said.
Rourke said that Lowell receiving accreditation from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission was a challenging two- to three-year process and Lowell was the biggest city in the state to earn the distinction.
Councilor Mercier said Richardson would be “missed tremendously” and that she knew he had worked “diligently, night and day” for the city.
“Chief, it has been an honor to serve with you,” Mercier said. “Especially in this day and age where its very difficult to be a police officer let alone the superintendent of police, we’re very honored that you chose to step in this role as chief, not an easy job.”
Councilor Vesna Nuon said he first met Richardson in 1990s when he was working for then-Middlesex District Attorney Thomas Reilly. He said Richardson had been a “super superintendent.”
“When I’d see him, I’d say this is the guy who’s one day going to be the superintendent of police in Lowell — and here you are,” Nuon said. “You’ve done a great job with all those men and women during a difficult time in the city and the country. And you actually advocated for and listened to the community and community input is there in you and your staff as well.”
When Richardson finally got to the microphone, his remarks were short. He placed the emphasis on his department members and credited them with his success.
From the podium, Richardson said he would miss communicating with members of the public. He highlighted a recent email from a woman in the Western Avenue Studios and Lofts who wanted to thank the police for their compassion when responding to a medical call involving an elderly woman.
“When you read something like that as the chief of police and you know that the people who work here get it, that’s kind of like when you know you did your job. I got to send that out to all the men and women in the organization that day,” Richardson said, adding that it underscores they do have the public’s support.
Richardson almost made an “Irish exit” from the chamber without his citation, prompting Chau to call him back to the floor a few times.
The Sweet 14
THERE IS now less than a month remaining on City Manager Donoghue’s contract and the talk about who is going to lead the city going forward is set to take centerstage.
On Friday, The Column learned there were 14 applicants for the city manager opening. Applications officially closed at noon Friday and several names came in late in the game.
Once councilors make their top three selections known to Human Relations Director Mary Callery, she is expected to give the consensus three finalists to the council. What remains unclear is what happens if the 11 councilors all choose three different top choices from the applicant pool.
Donoghue’s contract is set to expire on April 11, however, she has previously stated a willingness to stay on past then if needed.
It is unclear what qualities the council will place an emphasis on, however, it’s safe to assume a good communicator is near the top of the list.
Luck of the Irish
FOLLOWERS OF Mayor Chau on social media may have noticed that he pulled an early April Fool’s Day joke on St. Patrick’s Day.
On the @MayorChau Twitter account, Chau shared an image of a new sign outside of his office. Where it once read “Mayor Sokhary C. Chau,” it instead read “Mayor Sokhary O’Chau.” Two four-leaf clovers were added above the nameplate on the sign that reads “Mayor’s Office” and a leprechaun could be seen making a break for it down the hallway.
“The Leprechaun came to bless the Mayor’s Office and to declare me honorary Irish for the day,” Chau said when reached for comment.
Chau was given the honorary last name by Irish Cultural Committee member Kimberley McMahon during the kickoff of Irish Cultural Week on March 6.
When Chau was presenting a citation to McMahon, the Cambodian refugee joked that he could read it in an Irish accent and “no one would know the difference.”
To the untrained eye, the image looked credible. However, Chau conceded that it had all been Photoshopped by a friend of his.
THE LOWELL Police Department suffered a case of mistaken identity this week.
On Friday, councilors and other city officials’ email inboxes were suddenly full of complaints about an “Officer Stephens” who allegedly mistreated some opossums and calls for the offending officer to be fired and charged with animal abuse.
There was a Lowell Police officer who came under fire for such alleged behavior — only the officer works for the Lowell, Michigan, police, not Lowell, Mass.
According to reports from West Michigan-area media, the officer was accused of kicking a couple opossums in a roadway and cursing at a motorist who had stopped to protect the animals. The department released body cam footage showing the officer using his foot to move one opossum to the side of the road and picking the other up by the tail. It deemed the officer had done nothing wrong in how he handled the opossums, but reprimanded him for his language.
In the midst of the social media firestorm over the incident, the local Police Department’s page was tagged and flooded with comments by several people who had no idea they were directing their anger at the wrong department.
In response, Lowell Police posted a clarification on their Facebook and Twitter accounts about the erroneous tagging, closing with, “We love opossums.” A cute picture of an opossum was also included in the graphic.
Still, that didn’t stop several more people from coming to the post to continue commenting demands about an officer more than 800 miles away.
Markey not the only one ‘Walking on Sunshine’
TUESDAY’S UNANIMOUS U.S. Senate vote to approve the Sunshine Protection Act — which would make daylight saving time permanent nationally starting next year — clearly made U.S. Sen. Ed Markey very happy.
Shortly after the vote, he released a short video outside the U.S. Capitol building, with “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and The Waves as the background music.
“The Senate just passed daylight saving time to make it year round,” a smiling Markey says as he dances toward the camera. “We’re walking on sunshine.”
He wasn’t the only one who was happy about the vote and the prospect of making the change nationally.
City Manager Donoghue, when she was a state senator, had chaired a special commission in 2017 that examined the possibility of Massachusetts moving to Atlantic Standard Time — essentially, a permanent “spring forward.”
The commission’s report found numerous benefits to making the switch, but conceded it would only be possible if enough northeastern states also did it in tandem. The effort garnered national attention, with Donoghue making an appearance on “CBS This Morning.”
“I think it’s great,” Donoghue said of the U.S. Senate vote. “One of the things that we knew when we did the commission was, a state couldn’t do it on its own.”
She said the commission had found there was “really no good reason” for continuing to change the clocks twice a year, especially with all of the drawbacks to losing an hour of sleep.
“I think everybody has these assumptions and it had to do with farmers or had to do with agriculture, and none of that is true. And then there is compelling medical evidence as to that it’s not good physically for people,” Donoghue said, pointing to data that shows increases in accidents after the “spring forward.”
She said there was also evidence of dark hours beginning around 4 p.m. leading to more energy consumption.
Before it can be signed into law, the bill still has to be passed by the House, which has indicated it might not be interested in taking up the matter right away.
Moulton backs national mental health hotline
CONGRESSMAN SETH Moulton this past week announced a new bill to support the implementation of a new national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline this summer.
Moulton originally introduced the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which passed in 2020, to unite such hotlines and allow anyone with concerns about their or a loved one’s mental health to call 9-8-8 to access free, professional help.
The 9-8-8 hotline will be available starting in July, and Moulton and seven other members of Congress have introduced a bill to provide federal support, guidance and funding to states to implement it.
“The United States is facing a mental health crisis — made worse by two years of pandemic-induced trauma,” Moulton said. “My bill to make 9-8-8 the national hotline number for mental health emergencies was a critical step toward destigmatizing mental health and making care more accessible. … We’re long overdue to provide this service to Americans looking for a reliable, free place to turn during mental health emergencies.”
Moulton himself has previously discussed his own struggle with post-traumatic stress from his service in the military.
The 9-8-8 Implementation Act is being co-sponsored by Reps. Tony Cardenas, Doris Matsui and Grace Napolitano of California, Lisa Blunt of Delaware, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Don Beyer of Virginia and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.
This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Jacob Vitali in Lowell; Trea Lavery in the 6th Congressional District; and Enterprise Editor Alana Melanson.