1. O’Connor Honored
Mayor Chau presented outgoing City Solicitor Christine O’Connor with a “Key to the City” award for her many years of service. Atty. O’Connor has been the City Solicitor since 2004 and is leaving for a position in North Andover (Assistant City Solicitor Kerry Jenness will also be leaving the Law Department). Jack Mitchell of Inside Lowell has already chimed in on this issue and his post is worth checking out.
2. Utility Rates Getting Scary
Unless you’ve been living in a very dark room, you are well aware that utility rates are rising and are predicted to keep climbing. There was a motion response relative to the city’s current contracts for energy service as well potential means of savings going forward. As per the response:
Municipal energy accounts are covered by multiple contracts with energy suppliers. The City of
Lowell primarily uses an energy broker, Tradition Energy, to assist with procurement of energy
supply contracts. In order to secure the best pricing or municipal accounts, portions of the electric
load are bid out separately, depending on load profiles. Newer accounts not included in the
competitive solicitation were added to the City’s Community Choice Aggregation.
The current contract rates and accounts were summarized in the table below. You will note that the city is getting a pretty good deal (vs. current market rates) on the large and small electricity accounts:
However, cause for concern can be found in the following paragraph:
Katherine Moses, our Energy Coordinator, was present to discuss a number of plans and initiatives being pursued by the city to try to keep pace with the rising costs. Specifically, careful auditing of accounts, net metering credits, energy efficiency, and behind-the-meter solar.
The conversation shifted to the challenges (and fears) faced by residents over their monthly bills. The city is and will continue to increase efforts to assist residents in implementing the cost-saving measures listed above. It was stressed that residents opting out of the city’s Community Choice Aggregation program rarely end up saving money in the long run. As such, be wary of the shady solicitors at your door promising savings by opting out.
3. A Step Forward on Traffic Calming (Just don’t step onto Aiken Ave.)
Time and again, this site notes the increased demand on the part of residents and councilors for traffic calming measures. After a long period of vacancy, we finally have a Traffic Engineer, Elizabeth Oltman. Ms. Oltman was on-hand for the roll-out of a new Traffic Calming Program (although this “new” program looks an awful lot like a 2019 program that seemingly didn’t work out). The report provided to the council sets forth a flow-chart for the traffic-calming proposal process:
In essence, residents (or councilors) can make a proposal (ex: narrower lanes, curb bump-outs, speed bumps, bike lanes, etc.). The proposal will then pass through a series of filters and, if you’re lucky, a permanent change will follow.
A recent real-world example can be found with the Harvard Bridge “road diet.”
I see a potential problem with the Lowell plan in that there are too many bureaucratic buffers between the will of the residents and common-sense changes. The “Staff Assessment” level of the process places significant power in the hands of the traffic engineer. Accordingly, the personal philosophy or biases of said engineer could torpedo a worthwhile project.
Coincidentally, last night’s meeting provided an example. Councilor Robinson filed a motion to “Request City Manager Have Proper Department Look At Updating Crosswalk And Lighting At Hovey Park Along Aiken Avenue Side.”
Hovey Park features the city’s first fully ADA-compliant playground. It is surrounded by a dense neighborhood. It has an entrance on Aiken Avenue but no crosswalk near the entrance. The motion response shoots-down the request for a cross-walk in the following way:
Um, what? It’s an absurd mindset to accept that pedestrians should not be expected in a dense neighborhood and near a park. The framing is also disappointing. The issue is examined exclusively from the perspective of the motorist rather than the kid or parent trying to get to the park. Further, I find the reliance on general industry standards somewhat lazy. This mindset is increasingly decried by progressive engineers. Charles Marohn of StrongTowns.org notes the following:
An engineer working for their own priorities, instead of the priorities of the elected officials or the public at large, will quote industry standards as if they are inviolable laws instead of what they really are: guidelines for the typical scenario.
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is a favorite for engineers to cite, but in a unique situation the rote standards don’t easily apply. That’s why we have professional engineers, not merely technicians. Engineers are supposed to think, to use their professional judgement in places where it is warranted. In fact, that’s exactly what the MUTCD suggests should be done. Here is a quote from Section 1A.09 of the General provisions.
The decision to use a particular device at a particular location should be made on the basis of either an engineering study or the application of engineering judgment. Thus, while this Manual provides Standards, Guidance, and Options for design and applications of traffic control devices, this Manual should not be considered a substitute for engineering judgment. Engineering judgment should be exercised in the selection and application of traffic control devices, as well as in the location and design of roads and streets that the devices complement.
You’ll find this kind of statement in every engineering manual, yet too often engineers pretend like they are being paid to mindlessly apply the directions of others instead of providing their own professional judgement.
The language used by Mr. Marohn is a bit strong and may be inapplicable to the Hovey park situation. Indeed, the Hovey Park response may be a one-off and may not be at all indicative of the mindset of our engineer. It’s far too soon to render any final judgments.
The work of the council can go a long way in making sure that residents concerns are listened to and acted on. To that end, Councilor Robinson and Councilor Leahy both noted that it makes too much sense to figure out a solution for Aiken Avenue, rather than throw up our hands.
Finally, there was a brief discussion of funding sources for planned traffic calming measures. Councilor Drinkwater noted that we were set to receive $50,000 in state funds and inquired about the status of Safe Street and Roads grants offered by the federal government. Ms. Oltman noted that she would be pursuing any and all available grants. It is unclear to me whether the city already applied for a Safe Streets and Roads grant? As I understand it, the deadline was September 15, 2022. The matter was on the June 28, 2022 agenda. However, what should have been Motion Response “R” was omitted and I don’t believe it was discussed.
4. Contingency Fund Transfer Drama
If you remember the budget hearing this summer, Councilor Gitschier made a point in noting that certain accounts (mainly Fire Dept. overtime) were under-budgeted based on historic trends. This practice was cited as a poor budgeting process that the city should seek to eliminate.
Fast forward to last night, just four months into the budget year. There was a vote pertaining to the transfer of roughly $42,500 from the City Manager’s Contingency Fund to three department accounts. As such, when the issue to these (relatively small) transfers came up for a vote, Councilor Gitschier broadened the scope of the debate to again note the failure of department heads (in general) to properly budget for the fiscal year.
Drama ensued when he put the administration, namely CFO Baldwin, on the spot about the Fire Dept. overtime budget. Mr. Baldwin seemed taken aback by the line of questioning and noted that said issue was not on the agenda. Councilor Rourke jumped in to shield the administration from what was clearly an uncomfortable line of questioning. In the end, the vote passed 10-1, with Councilor Gitschier as the lone “no” vote.
The exchange was interesting for a couple of reasons: (1) it highlights the growing pains necessary to change “business as usual” specifically with the way the city has approached its budgeting processes; and (2) it was the second recent flare-up as between Councilors Gitschier and Rourke as to the appropriate direction of the meeting.
5. Misc. Meeting Note
I knew we’d be in for a wild ride when the following made an appearance on the agenda:
I’m hesitant to give this issue or the speaker any oxygen, but this is the second time this citizen registered to speak and it’s proving to be a bit disruptive. In August, the speaker registered to speak about Rynne Beach. However, things soon went off the rails into immigration, the homeless and shooting geese.
This time around the topic was Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), or more accurately, the speaker’s understanding of CRT. Again, things went sideways, the speaker was cut-off, and the Council took a five minute recess. After the break Councilor Scott inquired as to whether speakers can be limited to discussing topics relevant to the City Council or whether certain speakers can been banned. Certainly an interesting issue for a new solicitor.
6. New Media
I alluded above to Inside Lowell, a new media venture spearheaded by Teddy Panos of WCAP fame. If you read this site, you’ve likely already visited. If not, it’s worth checking out. I’ll give the mandatory disclaimer that I generally don’t agree with Mr. Panos’ politics – however, the state of the Sun proves that something needed to happen on the local media front. I checked out the podcast last week and enjoyed both the discourse and the production values. I’m looking forward to more content in the future and this outlet will likely end up on my list of daily visits.