My level of civic engagement increased substantially this week. On Monday night, I attended a public meeting on the city’s draft Master Plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025, and last night I watched the city council meeting. Well, only the first two and a half hours of the city council meeting. After that my head hurt too much so I turned it off.
The contrast between the two events could not have been more striking. The Master Plan is an amazing document which, if used properly, will build upon the city’s past accomplishments and guide us to a successful, prosperous, inclusive and responsible future. The seventy or so people who attended that session, a mix of new and old, were clearly committed to the big picture for Lowell. The council, in contrast, repeatedly became bogged down in minutiae and narrow agendas, striving to protect the interests of individuals and favored constituencies at the expense of the city as a whole.
This is not a snap judgment on my part. It’s an opinion formed after watching a number of past council meetings and it leaves me concerned about the future of the city. In a number of ways this council reminds me of the group that was elected in 1991. During that term, the city’s finances spiraled into chaos as that era’s real estate bubble collapsed, yet the collective council’s most passionate and lasting concern was how many stop signs to place on Clark Road. The citizens of Lowell responded, electing six new councilors in November 1993 and changing the direction of the city in ways that still benefit us today.
Will history repeat itself twenty years later in the 2013 city election? Perhaps, but that depends on a number of factors. You can’t beat somebody with nobody, so for there to be a change in direction on the city council, qualified candidates who have a clear vision for the city’s future and who are committed to outwork the incumbents must enter the race. Another factor is voter turnout. In the last city council election, just 9,946 residents cast their votes. In the just-past presidential election, 33,583 citizens cast their ballots. If just a slight percentage of those 23,637 people who voted for president but not for council could be persuaded to come to the polls this November, the dynamic of the council race could change completely.
Ironically, the factor that does the most to protect the incumbents is the deft management of the city’s finances by Bernie Lynch. I say “ironically” because not a few councilors seem determined to hound Lynch out of the manager’s office with their incessant criticism yet they are the prime electoral beneficiaries of his financial management expertise. With the city’s finances so stable, there’s not the groundswell of broad public concern that arises in times of financial crisis as a key ingredient to widespread change on the city council.
For the past five years I’ve been a guest speaker at a UMass Lowell class on Community Psychology that is compressed into the inter-session period between the fall and spring semesters. The class typically has a dozen students, few of whom are from Lowell. I usually visit them the night after they attend a city council meeting. For two hours I answer their questions about what they saw at the meeting and try to put the issues into some type of context. The class was at last night’s meeting and so I’ll be their guest tonight. I’m anxious to hear their impressions of the council meeting and I’ll share them here in a general way tomorrow. But after what I saw last night, that won’t be the last thing I’ll be writing about this city council.