Cyberattack impact lingers – Lowell Sun

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LOWELL SEEMS to operate in a space that hovers between being on the cusp of greatness or on the brink of disaster.

That see-saw dynamic was on full display over the past month, as Lowell played host at an event attended by Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and other high-ranking officials during which the administration announced $246 million to build and preserve 1,600 affordable and mixed-income housing units in 20 communities across the state, including Lowell.

Lowell’s portion of the housing pot will go toward building a $30 million housing development on Broadway in the Acre that will open up 52 new housing units, three of them permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless families.

That’s the promise of Lowell, to grab not only headlines and high-level attention, but also state and federal funding opportunities many of which are still raining down on large and small municipalities across the commonwealth from COVID-era funding, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act among other programs.

But the money won’t last forever, and it is being gobbled up by fast-moving municipalities eager to feather their local nest with government dollars. To do so, though, requires a functioning City Hall, and right now, Lowell’s is crippled.

The recent cyber attack reflects the Lowell that can’t seem to get out of its own way, crashing in spectacular fashion over what in the sports world are called unforced errors, or mistakes that are the result of bad decision-making and not due to the skill or effort of your competition or, in this case, cyber criminals.

Although the investigation is ongoing, on its face, the hack seems like a major unforced error in that the city was wholly unprepared for 21st-century cyber threats.

In 2021, then-City Councilor Dave Conway submitted a motion that was eerily prescient. He requested that then-City Manager Eileen Donoghue report on the city’s plan against a possible ransomware attack that would ensure that all city departments had sufficient protocols and updated technology to prevent hackers from comprising Lowell’s systems.

The motion response to Conway’s request two years ago was titled “Cyber Security Protocols” by Chief Information Officer Mirán Fernandez, whose department of Management Information Systems falls under the Finance Department led by Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin.

Fernandez told the council then that “The City of Lowell’s MIS Department has adopted a baseline designed to improve our overall cybersecurity posture,” which included “implementing best practices designed to secure our technology and data.”

The ransomware group Play, which has claimed responsibility for the April 24 cybercrime, released 5 gigabytes of data from that theft and posted it to the dark web on May 11.

Ransomware is “a type of malware designed to extort money from its victims, who are blocked or prevented from accessing data on their systems,” according to reporting by the Sun’s Joan T. Stylianos, who described the hack of a school district in Nashua, N.H.

Documents given to The Sun appear to show that the data allegedly stolen from Lowell’s municipal network includes personal and personnel data such as medical billing records and employee disciplinary cases.

The alleged release of sensitive data is a bad enough — and it’s not unreasonable to believe that Play is capable of releasing more data – but there is enormous fallout across the spectrum including operations and social trust.

The city has restored limited services, but the Lowell police department is booking prisoners in Dracut, and handwriting incident reports. Eventually, what is now five weeks of data will have to be input into the restored network.

The Lowell Sun runs weekly arrest logs from area communities, but Lowell data has not been available since May 1, complicating the availability and integrity of public information for research and reporting purposes.

The financial fallout is already evident in this week’s City Council meeting where City Manager Tom Golden is requesting approval to transfer $350,000 from the manager’s contingency account to a newly created cyber security account.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Baldwin will notify the council that the 2024 budget-planning process will be pushed back from May 23 to June 6.

Another sports term is “play of the game” in which one action had such enormous consequences it determined the trajectory of the rest of the game.

It remains to be seen if what is still being called a “cyber-related” event is that “play of the game” for a city that toggles between greatness and brinkmanship.

Billerica interim candidates considered

The Billerica School Committee is poised to choose an interim superintendent for the 2023-2024 school year Monday evening after interviewing three candidates at the Billerica Access Television studio last week.

The committee sat down for recorded interviews Wednesday and Thursday with Quaboag Regional School District interim Superintendent Maureen Binienda, Winchendon Public Schools Superintendent Thaddeus King and Westford Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery.

The three candidates are the finalists out of a field of about a dozen applicants for the interim role, which a subcommittee of the School Committee whittled down to five finalists, two of which withdrew their interest. A special meeting of the School Committee is scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. at the BATV studio where the primary focus will be to deliberate on the candidates and vote to approve one as the interim superintendent for the next school year. Also on the agenda is an executive session item to discuss contract negotiations for whichever candidate is chosen.

The search for an interim superintendent comes amidst something of a shakeup in the school districts leadership, with Superintendent Tim Piwowar and Assistant Superintendent Jill Geiser each announcing within days of each other last month that they will be taking superintendent roles in Westwood and Belmont respectively starting in the coming school year.

The committee voted on April 25 to appoint the district’s Humanities Coordinator, Marian Dyer, to the interim assistant superintendent role for next year.

Though the process of filling both roles for next year is nearly complete, the committee will essentially have to start all over again in the fall when they begin conducting a more thorough search and hiring process to fill the roles permanently. At least two of the three finalists for the interim-superintendent role indicated during their interviews that if they are selected, they would also be interested in pursuing the permanent role.

Chelmsford’s green flip-flop

They say the grass is always greener on the other side. In Chelmsford — metaphorically and environmentally — that may be the case.

Members of the Clean Energy and Sustainability Committee expressed their frustrations over the town’s sudden reversal to go green at Monday’s Select Board meeting.

On March 27, committee member Sean McGuigan and committee Chair Badhri Uppiliappan presented to the board on the importance of choosing a default town energy supply option that aligns with net-zero carbon emission goals and is simply better for the environment. Following that discussion, the board essentially agreed, choosing the “greener” supply option for the next Chelmsford Choice contract, after the current one expires in November.

McGuigan said such an effort would increase green energy purchased from the state’s required 22% up to 40%.

“This one decision would have made a tremendous impact in reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other project or initiative we could undertake and at an economical price for our residents,” McGuigan said. “You can imagine my surprise and disappointment when I learned that during the May 1 Select Board meeting, that commitment was overturned and the basic option became the Chelmsford Choice default.”

Town Manager Paul Cohen relayed high bid prices to the board, sharing that the lowest bid for the baseline supply came out to a 54% increase and above the estimated $13.8 cents/kWh from the month prior. For the 50% green deal, the price came out to more than a cent increase.

After a 3-2 vote, board members decided to switch options, looking for the lowest tier — and cheapest — supply option.

The move prompted McGuigan and colleagues to voice their upset during public input, with the hopes of change.

Because no members from the Clean Energy and Sustainability Committee were present to offer insight, and because Cohen reportedly called the high prices “a market anomaly,” McGuigan suggested the board failed to do its due diligence and think before altering its vote. Cohen rebid the contract May 10, he added, “even though we had up to three months to do so.”

In a plea to Cohen, McGuigan emailed asking to enter into a shorter term contract for further discussion or just allow board members to form an opinion on the changing prices. Speaking before the board, he requested they review their vote and possibly cancel the re-bid.

“Neither of my recommendations were acted on, and the town is sadly locked into the basic default option for the next two years,” he said. “This is quite a setback, both to the CES Committee and the town reps who voted for this committee to be formed to advance green energy projects… The town deserves better than just the state minimum.”

Precinct 5 Town Meeting Rep. Thomas Amiro, who also co-founded the Chelmsford Climate Action Team, said he was unaware the energy procurement program was back up for discussion at the prior meeting.

Amiro recalled challenges in campaigning for residents to opt-up, as well as championing a green default, to no avail. Anecdotally, Amiro shared that only a handful of residents in neighboring Westford decided to opt-down from their green energy option, as opposed to the expected or anticipated mass wave of opt-downs. Other Westford residents, though few, are choosing to opt-up, Amiro added.

Green municipal aggregation should be preferred over the default, Amiro said, because “I never thought a C was a good grade.”

“We were a leader in adopting municipal aggregation,” he said, “but we’ve fallen behind in adding emissions savings to cost savings.”

Fellow CES Committee member Peter Spawn spoke on a different angle: Strategic planning. As the town reevaluates its Master Plan and prepares for the town’s future, Spawn said local leaders should consider climate change and its impacts.

Uppiliappan — who also serves as a Precinct 9 Town Meeting representative — closed the public input period reiterating that the committee and stakeholders had no idea the energy program was even on the agenda.

“We are an advisory committee, we recognize that,” Uppiliappan said. “The decision is all (on the) Select Board, and the agenda is controlled by the Select Board chair, but we should have been accorded that much basic respect if this was going to come back to a discussion.”

And it’s not like the board and the town is alone in its fight to cut emissions in half by 2030 — Uppiliappan pointed to state guidelines. He argued about the accuracy of the true pricing in the bid, and voiced his upset with the vote.

He advised the board to “not do this to any other committee in the future.” Prince increases, like death and taxes, are inevitable, Uppiliappan said, and the committee’s heart is in the right place.

“I would also say that there are possibilities that (the) legislature will take cognizance that a town like Chelmsford did not go beyond in its depth and take leadership positions,” he said, “and penalize Chelmsford for not being advanced… In fact, there may be people who may campaign for disincentives for Chelmsford.”

Later in the meeting, Cohen said the town’s energy consultant recommended, on May 10, a year-long bid at $14.843 cents/kWh. The current basic supply price in Chelmsford sits at $10.042 cents/kWh. He added that the market has since stabilized.

In response to comments that the town could wait a couple months for new numbers, Cohen said the consultant said “this is the time you want to be bidding” because heat waves and other energy demands during the summer can impact that.

Clerk Virginia Crocker Timmins suggested there be more education and information about opting-up, and that will be discussed at a later meeting.

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