The face of Lowell’s upcoming elections

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IT’S AN election year for both the Lowell City Council and the School Committee, but except for the usual suspects, no one new seems to be running.

At least, not yet. Nomination papers can be pulled at the Elections Office up at City Hall from June through August, so there’s still time for new candidates to throw their hat in the ring. But will they? And what purpose does waiting serve in the political arena where name recognition and a public profile is an asset to raising money and electability?

Prior to the 2021 election, the city was represented by an all at-large municipal electoral system, one of the last of the cities in the commonwealth to use that voting format. Almost every single elected city official was white despite demographics that put Lowell on the cusp of becoming a majority-minority city with minorities contributing 49% of Lowell’s population.

The increasingly diverse Lowell community felt disrespected and neglected by City Hall. They didn’t feel represented.

In 2017, a coalition of Asians and Latinos filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city asserting that the at-large system violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the Constitution by diluting the vote of minorities in Lowell and depriving them of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Under the at-large system, more than half of the members of the previous City Council lived in a single neighborhood, Belvidere.

In 2019, after years of legal wrangling and maneuvering, the city negotiated a settlement.

And in 2021, the change wrought by that consent decree created a new, more diverse, equitable and inclusive voting system that resulted in the creation of eight districts — two of which are majority-minority — and three at-large seats on the City Council. The election featured eight candidates of color running for council — two incumbents, six new faces — two of the latter whom won, and created an immediate seismic political shift in neighborhood representation.

That leadership shift was particularly felt in the seven-member School Committee, which saw Stacey Thompson, a former Lowell teacher, become the city’s first Black woman elected to municipal office. Four of the committee’s seats were converted to district representation.

Corey Robinson, who is biracial, was elected Lowell’s first Black city councilor.

However, not a single Latino ran for council in 2021. And the community remains unrepresented on the School Committee, in a district that serves an almost 40% Latino student population.

To date, at-large Councilor John Drinkwater has announced he won’t seek re-election. And only Councilor Paul Ratha Yem, who represents the Acre neighborhood, issued a formal press release announcing his intention to run again.

Sure, there have been public murmurings, including speculation that Centralville Councilor Robinson and Highlands Councilor Erik Gitschier may run for at-large seats. With only one seat currently open from Drinkwater’s withdrawal, at-large Councilors Vesna Nuon and Rita Mercier, who are both believed to be seeking re-election, are surely taking note.

On the school side, Susie Chhoun is rumored to be eyeing Robinson’s council seat if he runs for the at-large position. That may be in response to the formal announcement by Dave Conway, a retired Lowell educator and former city councilor, that he will run for the Chhoun’s District 3 seat, which is comprised of Belvidere and South Lowell.

Still, no Latinos are among any of the announced or speculative candidates. The Lowell Latino population includes but is not exclusive to Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Mexican and Guatemalan residents. The largest concentration of Latinos in Lowell reside in the Acre, Centralville, Lower Belvidere and Back Central.

It could be that at baseline, the reconfigured City Council and School Committee are already meeting the needs and interests of their constituents and that physical representation of that demographic is not considered necessary by the community.

Of course, that’s always the goal of good governance: that special interests don’t receive special treatment, and that all citizens are equally represented by their elected leaders. The conventional political wisdom is that all voices are represented when all parties have the proverbial seat at the table. But so far this election season is bucking that, and suggests that the process of representation — not the face of that representation — may be a factor. Neighborhood resources dramatically increased under the current council.

There’s time for candidates to jump in — or out — and until they either “fish or cut bait” by formally announcing their intentions, the field remains open.

Riverneck Road warehouse no more?

AND SO ends the perpetual public drama of the dreaded Riverneck Road warehouse development … for now.

Davis, the development company that owns 191, 195, 199-201 Riverneck Road, returned to the Chelmsford Planning Board Wednesday night to withdraw without prejudice their proposal to construct a 250,000-square-foot warehouse, as well as their plans to widen the 300 Apollo Drive emergency access road to two lanes to allow truck traffic through to the site.

Michael Cantalupa, chief development officer at Davis, informed the board of the request in a letter last week, officially speaking on the decision at the meeting Wednesday.

The multiple iterations of the project and the numerous public hearings concerning it have resulted in “a fairly long process” for all parties involved, Cantalupa said, and recent feedback influenced the developer to reconsider its options.

“We determined that we could not make enough modifications to the project and to do the work with enough detail and quality to come back to the board for this particular meeting,” Cantalupa said.

With the upcoming Town Meeting also on the horizon, Cantalupa said now’s a good time “to reset.” The company’s now re-evaluating the proposed use, which they’ve discovered “is not necessarily acceptable to this board and to the members of the public.” Cantalupa said they may opt for a “less intense use” and a smaller size.

Cantalupa also referenced their proposal to create a second lane on the emergency access road at 300 Apollo Drive, which has been widely opposed by abutters on nearby Monmouth Street and those across the town.

With a promise to work closely and collaboratively with all stakeholders — already having connected with some community members who have provided input — Cantalupa asked to go back to the drawing board.

“While we really haven’t reached any conclusions, we think it’s a good start to how we would reconsider the project,” Cantalupa said. “So in summation, we’d like to thank you for all the feedback that you’ve gotten. We’ve worked really hard to try to make an acceptable project, and we realize that we have some work ahead of us if we’re going to meet with your approval and with that of the community.”

Chair Michael Raisbeck explained that “without prejudice” allows for the project to return before the board in a new form and new application, without a time limit.

In two separate votes, without further discussion, the board unanimously voted to accept the request. It’s unclear when exactly Davis will return with their next proposal. The votes also meant both public hearings have effectively ended, or as Raisbeck put it, “off our plate now.”

But it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Sean Campbell, who lives on Monmouth Street, wrote in an email that he’s still apprehensive about Davis’ plans. Having spoken with the developer recently, he wrote there’s still no “official answers” for what they plan to do.

The good news is that the community looks “to have prevented the mega warehouse,” he wrote.

“I believe Davis will do the right thing and I am hoping and betting they will show us (their) true talent and make something that is great for the community,” Campbell wrote. “Something that Davis and Chelmsford will be proud of!”

Others took to Facebook to voice their excitement, reminding residents to visit the polls April 2 to decide whether Raisbeck will be re-elected or one of his two opponents will take his place.

More public meeting tension in Billerica

THINGS BECAME a little tense in the March 6 Select Board meeting during a discussion on the distribution of community funds from corporations with tax increment finance agreements in Billerica.

Select Board Chair Andrew Deslaurier raised his voice at member Michael Rosa during the discussion after Rosa suggested that Deslaurier acted improperly in how he facilitated the distribution of the 2023 community funds, and that Deslaurier should have recused himself from the process due to a close family member having applied for the funds.

“At least one of the applications, although they didn’t get funding, had a close family member of yours on it. So that should have exempted you from participating in that conversation, in my opinion,” Rosa said to Deslaurier, who was offended at the suggestion.

“Wait a minute,” Deslaurier interjected. “Are you saying that I would influence this decision to benefit a personal organization of mine? Is that what you are saying right now?”

Deslaurier went on to tell Rosa, his voice still raised, that he had “worked tirelessly to reorganize the community funds project,” to regain the confidence of the participating companies after they had lost confidence in the town in the past due to issues with funds being co-opted.

“I purposely made sure I had no involvement. I reviewed no applications because I wanted these organizations to have confidence in this program and support them as co-neighbors,” said Deslaurier. “To call out my ethics … You know me better. Your family knows me better, sir. I expect an apology.”

Rosa explained that he took issue with Deslaurier not only acting on his own without a proper Select Board subcommittee, but also with him leaving the distribution of the funds entirely up to the two corporations, EMD Serono and E Ink, to decide where the funds went without any real input from the town. EMD Serono gives out community funds to local nonprofit organizations every year as part of its TIF agreement with Billerica. E Ink used to have a similar agreement which has since expired, but the company still donates to Billerica’s community fund on their own, without the need for Select Board input or approval.

The $50,000 donated this year by EMD Serono, however, does require Select Board approval.

In the Select Board’s Policies and Procedures guide where it details the process of distributing community funds, Rosa pointed out that it states, “The Fund will be administered as a grant, with project applications reviewed by a subcommittee of the Select Board and a representative of each company. The full Select Board will then vote the awards.”

“So, the $50,000 that goes to the town through the TIF agreement, which is the town’s money, you’re saying we had no seat at the table to decide where this money would go,” said Rosa.

Another issue Rosa had was how the funds were actually distributed. Out of 16 applications, six local organizations were approved for the community funds totaling $65,000 between the contributions of EMD Serono and E Ink. Those were $3,000 for the Billerica Public Library, $5,000 for Billerica Yankee Doodle Homecoming, $6,000 for the Billerica Playground Project, $8,000 for the Billerica Community Farmers Market, $5,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Billerica and $38,0000 going to Community Caregivers.

Rosa said Community Caregivers, though deserving in their own right, should not have received such a significant portion of the funds being distributed. Only $35,000 from that total was from EMD Serono, so that portion of the Community Caregivers funds was the only portion voted on by the board.

“Of the $50,000 we have control over, $35,000 is going to one entity. Now that one entity, I support,” said Rosa. “To give $35,000 to one entity when we could have satisfied multiple other community needs… There were three veterans’ requests on here and they got nothing.”

Deslaurier, frustrated, asked Rosa if he wanted to just redo the entire process, which Rosa said he did. Select Board member Kim Conway interjected, urging Deslaurier not to restart the process at the insistence of a single member of the board.

“Trust me, I would never want to based on him,” said Deslaurier.

The board ultimately voted 3-2 to accept the distribution of the funds, with Rosa and John Burrows voting against it.

In the days following the meeting, Rosa and Deslaurier addressed what had happened. Deslaurier said that Rosa was likely referring to his wife, Maggie Deslaurier’s role in the Parent Teacher Organization at Hajjar Elementary School, which applied for community funds but did not receive them.

He said that E Ink had left their TIF agreement with the town due to a misunderstanding with the community funds.

“But in their good graces they have continued the program,” said Deslaurier.

As distributing funds can sometimes go, Deslaurier said he approached the funds the way he did because he did not want to let the community funds turn “into a reward system for politically connected entities.”

“But unfortunately every year Selectman Rosa takes issue with where the funds are going,” said Deslaurier. “I’ve had my disagreements and agreements with Rosa on both sides. I do think calling my integrity into question in an open meeting is someplace he has never gone before.”

Rosa said the Wednesday following the meeting that Deslaurier did not follow established Select Board protocols, and funds that were supposed to be in the control of the town were put in the control of a corporation.

“That is not how it is supposed to work. That is never how it worked,” said Rosa. “All these veterans’ organizations asking for money, we had an opportunity to help almost all of them if we split the money evenly. But there was no representation from the town to guide them, so they made the decision to spend our money.”

Selectman in court

TEWKSBURY SELECT Board member Mark Kratman stood before Judge Marianne Hinkle in Woburn District Court Thursday for a probable disposition in his third OUI case. As has been the case since Kratman was first arraigned for the OUI in question on Nov. 12, 2019, the matter was pushed back for more than a month to April 28.

The March 9 hearing was brief. Kratman’s attorney, Terrence Kennedy, had put in a request for a breakdown on the case, but said he had not yet received a response. According to court documents, the defense had also made a motion on Jan. 3 to remove Kratman from the Jan. 10 jury trial list, which was allowed.

According to the police report, on Nov. 11, 2019, Kratman was pulled over in Wilmington after multiple callers reported that he was driving erratically and was holding up traffic. The responding officer reported that he had witnessed Kratman crossing over traffic lines and almost striking a utility pole, at which point he flipped on his police lights. After allegedly failing multiple sobriety tests directed by the officer, Kratman was placed under arrest.

He faces charges of negligent operation of a motor vehicle, a marked lanes violation and his third offense of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, which can carry a sentence between 180 days and five years in jail.

This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Melanie Gilbert in Lowell, Cameron Morsberger in Chelmsford, and Peter Currier in Billerica and Tewksbury.

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