I was late getting home tonight so I missed the first 45 minutes of the Lowell City Council meeting and I was pulled away from the TV shortly after 9 pm, but the portion of the meeting I watched for nearly two hours was quite a change from what I witnessed just a week ago. Tonight’s discussion involved items that were actually on the agenda and the discussion on those issues was thorough but not belabored. It resembled a council meeting; not a parody of one.
When I first tuned in, flu shots were the topic. Earlier the Lowell Health Department had announced that it had exhausted its allocation of flu shots and councilors wanted the public to know that there were still plenty of flu shots available in Lowell at drugstores and doctors’ offices, just not at the city health department.
Next came a couple of relatively mundane issues – road repairs and dog licenses – which are both critically important municipal functions. Regarding dog licenses, the city is investing in some new software for the city clerk’s office to track information about dogs and licenses. During the discussion the manager suggested that the city was not getting all of the dog license fees to which he thought it entitled and that this new software might make collection efforts more efficient. As a Lowell dog owner for nearly three decades (four different dogs with some overlap), I have to concur with the manager. I knew dog license fees are due to the city each January and have mailed in my $10 check and self-addressed, stamped envelope every year for the past five years, but before that (i.e., for years beyond the statute of limitations) I pretty much neglected that requirement. My advice is to send out bills. It’s more likely that people will pay.
One item that prompted an interesting and (by tonight’s standards) an extensive discussion came from the Rules Subcommittee. In the aftermath of the former city clerk’s prosecution for theft more than a year ago, the council, the appointing authority of the clerk, the auditor and the city manager, expressly and tacitly acknowledged that it (the council) had failed in its supervisory responsibilities. To keep more active oversight over those three officials, the council voted to have eight “oversight” meetings during the non-summer months instead of regular council meetings, with each oversight meeting focused on one of the three council appointees.
Chaired by Councilor Ed Kennedy, the Rules Committee (which also included Bill Martin and Joe Mendonca) had at a recent meeting voted unanimously to continue with the oversight meetings but to have them occur 90 minutes before the start of the regular city council meeting rather than instead of the regular city council meeting. Some councilors weren’t initially sold on this proposal, arguing that since the council now had a Clerk/Auditor Oversight Subcommittee, there was no need to also have special meetings for those two positions. When Councilor Nuon commented that “You don’t want to wait until you have a problem to act” the move to cut back on oversight sputtered out and the council adopted the recommendation of the Rules Subcommittee on unanimous voice vote.
During this discussion, it was abundantly clear that not a few councilors are not fans of PowerPoint presentations at these meetings. Councilor Kennedy said he thought these meetings should be “free-wheeling affairs” at which councilors could raise any item they wished. While that comment nearly triggered in me a post-traumatic flashback to last week’s chaotic council meeting, it prompted the mayor to caution that such an approach would violate the state’s Open Meeting Law. At that point, other councilors spoke up, suggesting (properly, I believe) that any councilor can raise any item at one of these meetings so long as that councilor places that item on the meeting agenda in advance. Since the deadline for doing that is (I believe) 2 pm on the Friday before a Tuesday meeting, that seems like a reasonable approach.
At that point, other matters drew me away from the TV so I’ll have to catch the rest of the meeting once LTC posts it online. But from what I saw, this was a very different meeting – in a good way – than the one held a week ago.