The following represents the opinion of the Lowell’s First Look editorial board.
In the three plus years since we launched Lowell’s First Look, we’ve sat through lots of Lowell City Council meetings. Regular meetings, special meetings, Coffee with Council meetings. During those, we’ve heard people share reports, memos and PowerPoint presentations. But do you know what we haven’t heard?
We’re hard pressed to think of times in which councilmembers looked up from their seat and told their constituents, “I’m voting for this because…” Meetings pass with plenty of inside jokes and back-patting while those in audience serve as spectators to the proceedings. They are not invited into the conversation, and when they do rise to share a concern or ask questions, they are often met with indifference or dismissal unless they are speaking in support of a council pet project.
This is not the way our city government should be run. Elected officials are not nobility lording over the peasant masses. They are supposed to be responsive and representative. Our government should be collaborative with residents feeling as though they have a voice in the policies that shape their community.
The trend nowadays is to select a word at the start of a new year; one that will guide decisions for the next 12 months. For 2020, we think accountability should be the word of the year for Lowell City Council.
To be clear, we are painting with a broad brush here. Some councilmembers have already demonstrated their willingness to create more accountability to the public. We applaud Councilmember Cliff Yankovich’s commitment to being accessible to residents on social media, and we appreciate that Councilmember Greg Canfield often asks questions when no one else does.
However, the council as a whole, doesn’t operate in an open or accountable manner. We see room for significant improvement in three areas:
- Adherence to the Spirit of the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act
- Use of Committees of the Whole
- Opportunities for Public Engagement
Adherence to the Spirit of the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act
Known as the OMA and FOIA, these two laws are intended to ensure transparency in government activities. As the text of FOIA states:
It is the public policy of this state that all persons…are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees…The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process.
FOIA allows people to inspect and receive copies of public records and records of a public body, such as a city council. Those records include emails, texts, memos and other communications relating to official duties, even if sent through a private channel such as a personal email address. However, there are some exceptions, such as information that is of a sensitive nature or subject to attorney-client privilege.
Meanwhile, the OMA stipulates:
All deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meeting open to the public except as provided in this section and sections 7 and 8.
Those exceptions include consulting with an attorney about a trial and settlement strategy, “but only if an open meeting would have a detrimental financial effect on the litigating or settlement position of the public body.” On other issues, they can go into a closed session to discuss an attorney’s opinion, but only if they are discussing a legal memorandum. In other words, they can’t go into closed session simply to talk over an issue and get the city attorney’s verbal opinion.
Look, we’re not lawyers, and we’re not going to say that Lowell City Council is violating either FOIA or OMA. However, we will say that as local residents and reporters, we find that their actions don’t always seem to line up with the spirit in which these laws were written.
For instance, after the public hearing on the RiverView Flats PUD application, there was not one word from councilmembers. No questions about the next step, no comments on the citizen input. It makes you wonder what sort of discussion took place among councilmembers before the meeting to warrant the radio silence.
They did discuss the matter in a closed session later that night, citing the need for a legal opinion. However, we’re not sure why a legal opinion was needed to discuss traffic generated by the condominiums or the appropriateness of using public parking lots for a larger-scale private housing development. Those were issues raised by residents living in the area, and we have no idea if the council considered their concerns because we were not allowed to hear any of their deliberations on the matter.
As for FOIA, we tip our hat to Police Chief Steve Bukala and his staff, who handle FOIA requests for the city, for their quick response to our inquiries. However, the information we receive does not always appear to be complete.
For example, our FOIA request regarding the Help Yourself Garden included an email chain that referenced earlier emails. However, when we asked about those, the messages could not be found. For our FOIA of information pertaining to RiverView Flats, Councilmember Canfield appeared to be the only member to turn over his text messages and yet, there were group messages listing all the councilmembers as recipients and several as participants. One councilmember even sent an email in response to the FOIA request saying he did not have anything on his phone although he was listed in a group text conversation.
We are optimistic that these omissions aren’t deliberate. However, they do speak to perhaps the need for additional training on what documents are subject to FOIA and should be preserved. In recent years, Lowell City Council has participated in annual team-building workshops at a cost of $2,000-$3,000 each. Since the councilmembers seem to get along so well now, may we gently suggest that next year that money might be better spent on training regarding OMA and FOIA provisions?
Use of Committees of the Whole
Practically once a month, Lowell City Council has a Committee of the Whole prior to their regular meeting. These meetings start at 5:30pm and typically run about an hour. They are often where major issues are first previewed or discussed. These include the following:
- Recreational marijuana
- City income tax
- Street improvements
- City staff reorganization
- City pension system
- Showboat plans
We’ve been told that Committees of the Whole are held to allow city council to meet jointly with other boards, but the vast majority of meetings involve only the council. Of the issues above, only the recreational marijuana meeting included another board. It leads us to wonder why these Committee of the Whole discussions can’t be held during the regular meetings, which also run roughly about an hour or less on most nights.
Certainly, some issues require a separate hearing. The joint meeting on recreational marijuana ran more than two hours, for example. But why schedule a hearing on such an important matter at 5:30pm? Some people aren’t even home from work at that time, and it’s the dinner hour for many families.
As currently used, the Committee of the Whole system seems designed to maximize council convenience and minimize public participation.
Opportunities for Public Engagement
Committees of the Whole are indicative of what we see as a larger problem. That is that the Lowell City Council doesn’t seem too interested in hearing other opinions on the matters before them. From full-time firefighters to RiverView Flats to recreational marijuana, councilmembers appear to have made up their minds in advance.
It doesn’t surprise us that the city income tax proposal failed because no one asked city voters if it was something they wanted. Councilmembers heard a presentation on income generating options – at a sparsely attended Committee of the Whole – and decided that an income tax was the way to go. They didn’t hold any public hearings, didn’t send out any surveys to gauge public interest. Instead, they forged ahead with the belief that they alone knew best and spent nearly $35,000 in legal and PR fees in the process.
We miss the days of former Mayor Jim Hodges pausing discussions on complex topics to paraphrase the matter in plain English or quickly recap previous action for those in attendance. These were simple and quick ways to make people in attendance feel as though they were part of the discussion, not merely spectators.
The current city council appears to make decisions in a vacuum. Whether it’s renaming the Showboat or giving away parkland, they typically don’t involve the public in the decision-making process unless required to by city law. Perhaps they don’t know they can hold a public hearing at any time, even if not required by local ordinances. Certainly, previous city councils seemed to hold public hearings and invite public comment at a far greater frequency than what we see today.
Yes, precious few people take advantage of the opportunities they already have to address city council, but we can’t really blame them. Why spend an evening at city hall when you know your questions won’t be answered or addressed – as happened at the RiverView Flats hearing – or your opinion will be outweighed by those of non-residents, as happened at the recreational marijuana hearing.
As an aside, on that last point, some city councilmembers have pointed to the fact that 60% of Lowell voters supported the legalization of recreational marijuana as justification for allowing marijuana facilities in the city. However, many people have told us that while they think people should be able to legally possess and use marijuana, they don’t necessarily want to live in a town dotted with pot shops.
The reality is that the current council atmosphere does not invite public involvement. It often feels as though constituent comments are something to be endured not encouraged. It regularly seems as though councilmembers have come to some sort of agreement prior to meetings since discussion is minimal and explanations often not provided.
Recently, Mayor Mike DeVore expressed displeasure regarding how we cover the council. However, in the absence of any explanation regarding their actions, we can only report the facts we have available. It is not our fault if those facts make the council look bad.
We don’t think councilmembers are necessarily trying to operate under a shroud of secrecy, but it is what they do, nonetheless. Maybe they are getting bad advice from somewhere or simply don’t realize how their actions appear. Either way, we hope they will focus on improving their accountability and transparency in the coming year.