Bookmark and Share

Barring surprises, say hello to Mayor Leahy

BARRING ANY last minute surprises, John Leahy will be elected the city’s 92nd mayor Monday morning during an event filled with pomp and circumstance at City Hall at 10 a. m.

Leahy will cast a ballot for himself and receive support from Sokhary Chau and John Drinkwater, both new councilors. Support from Rita Mercier, a veteran councilor, and returning Councilor Dan Rourke, is expected to bring him up to the necessary five votes.

Councilors David Conway and Rodney Elliott are votes to watch.

Vesna Nuon, who finished second to Mercier in the November election, is a declared mayoral candidate who was unable to gain any traction beyond William Samaras, who just wrapped up a busy twoyear term in the podium.

It’s been a longtime coming for Leahy. The Belvidere resident, who’s also put his years in on the School Committee, flirted with the position two years ago. But the residential painter by trade still feels he got gypped by Councilor Edward Kennedy, who ended up being the key vote for Samaras.

Leahy hails from an extended political family. State Rep. David Nangle, is a cousin, will likely be in attendance Monday, as will another cousin, former City Councilor Mike Lenzi. And don’t forget brother- in- law George Ramirez, another former city councilor.

Most importantly, Leahy’s father, the late Daniel Leahy, is a former city councilor and state senator who passed away in 2016. Dan would be proud. John Leahy’s mother, Gloria Leahy was another active member of the community. She passed away two years after her husband.

So is there any intrigue heading into Monday’s historic vote? Actually, there is and it will come after the initial vote.

Leahy has previously told The Column that he would appreciate unanimous support, to show city residents its council is a united front moving forward in 2020.

He has pressed colleagues to make that happen, in particular Samaras.

But let’s not forget two years ago, when Leahy, joined by Conway, Elliott and Mercier, declined to climb aboard the S. S.

MAYOR » 4A

FROM PAGE 3A

Unanimous with Captain Samaras at the helm?

Leahy’s comments about unanimity were made to the Column soon after November’s election when he worked hard to lock up the votes for mayor. Numerous attempts to reach him since for follow- up have been unsuccessful.

As for Samaras, he declined to comment.

AS MAYOR, Leahy would have a front row seat to negotiations with the city’s largest union, United Teachers of Lowell. Or will he?

Leahy’s sister, Kathleen Ramirez, is a teacher at Greenhalge Elementary School. State law bars municipal employees from participating in matters where “immediate family,” which includes siblings, have a financial interest.

Barring an employment change, Ramirez’s paycheck will reflect the raises the School Committee does — or does not — give the teachers, meaning Leahy would likely be required to recuse himself. Leahy did not return multiple calls this week and last.

So does this mean the City Council wouldn’t have a voice in the historically hard fought and controversial teacher’s union negotiations?

In some cases, the city could invoke the “rule of necessity” and bring in a substitute, but that move is a last resort and not necessarily applicable to this situation.

“It may only be used if an elected board is legally required to act on a matter and it lacks enough members to take valid action solely because members are disqualified by the conflict of interest law from participating in the matter,” according to a state Ethics Commission explainer.

The current three- year contract with United Teachers of Lowell expires at the end of June. This contract, along with a simultaneously approved retroactive one- year contract, instituted 9 percent salary increases over four years for teachers. The agreement was met with criticism, particularly when the district’s finances faltered in 2018 amid the ousting of former Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui.

Leahy faced pressure to recuse himself in 2014 when his brotherin- law — not considered immediate family under the law — George Ramirez sought the city manager position. At the time, Leahy said he received feedback from the general public that he should not back down and felt he could be objective. He voted for Ramirez, later changing his vote in support of Kevin Murphy to align with the rest of City Council.

THE FRENETIC calling and lobbying behind the scenes preceding the City Council vote on mayor could be a dying tradition.

At the first regular City Council meeting of the year — a day after the council selects this term’s mayor — the body will consider a motion submitted by Councilor Elliott.

The motion requests a report outlining the process of changing the charter to allow residents to vote on the mayor.

MORE THAN a year on and loose ends still linger in the Democratic primary race for the 3rd Congressional District.

Lori Trahan came out on top over Dan Koh by a razor- thin margin and went on to win the general election. Questions about her campaign finances have regularly surfaced in the news over the past year, including a decision last month by the House Committee on Ethics to pursue further investigation.

Less remembered is the decision by the Secretary of State William Galvin’s Office to take control of election offices in Lowell in Lawrence in September 2018 following the primary. The investigation into the “ practices and procedures” of the Lowell elections office was launched upon the discovery of “several admin-istrative errors in the processing of ballots and the tallying of state primary results,” according to a letter from Galvin’s office.

Over a year since this action, the takeover has not formally concluded, though the Secretary of State’s Office is no longer physically in the Lowell office. A spokeswoman for the office said a report of the findings won’t be created until after this conclusion.

She attributed the wait to turnover in the Lowell elections office. This spring, Director of Elections Eda Matchuk left for a position in Lynn. In her absence, Assistant City Solicitor Elliott Veloso has headed the department in an interim role.

Meanwhile elections keep coming, including the presidential primary scheduled for March 3.

LAST MONTH, the Lowell City Council joined the state and several other cities in Massachusetts in supporting the continued resettlement of refugees in Lowell. It was a response to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in September requiring local communities to opt into refugee resettlement.

Smaller surrounding communities may not be following in Lowell’s footsteps.

The International Institute of New England, which has a Lowell office, resettles people within 50 miles of their offices, mostly in cities. Places where this resettlement happens — like Lowell, Lawrence, Boston, Lynn, Nashua and Concord, New Hampshire — have readily opted in, according to President and CEO Jeff Thielman.

“ Our goal is to resettle people in places where they can get jobs and services,” he said. Housing is also key, he added.

If the number of refugees increases, Thielman said there could be a reason to resettle people in smaller communities, but as it stands, the trend is in the opposite direction. “ We are not looking for expansion right now,” he said.

Last year, the International Institute of New England resettled 71 refugees in Lowell, including about half reuniting with family members. This year, they expect 50 refugees, almost all with family already in the area.

Earlier in the decade — from November 2013 to September 2014 — the institute’s Lowell office saw nearly 300 arrivals.

Under the current presidential administration, the nationwide ceiling for refugee resettlement has dropped dramatically from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 to this fiscal year’s cap, 18,000 — the lowest on record since the program began in 1980.

WORD HAS it the Plaths ( of Cobblestones and Moonstones) are planning a new location in Nashua, according to a recent announcement to employees.

More details will emerge in the coming months, but Scott and Kathy Plath hope to open the new location on or about April 2020.

The new location has been simmering in Scott’s mind and in multiple iterations for more than five years now – as he and Kathy looked for a concept to offset the many challenges facing the restaurant industry. Located on Route 101/Amherst Street the busiest thoroughfare in New Hampshire, the new concept will offer fine- casual fare in a smaller, hip environment – casual service with elevated comfort fare.

The restaurant duo plans on building upon the reputation which has sustained them over a combined 36 years – one of excellent quality food, hospitality, and a commitment to community and team.

Rumors had been circulating the Plath’s may think about moving Cobblestones due to the uncertainty and scope of the downtown Lowell High School project, however they have assured The Column that this new restaurant will not be replacing either one of their two existing thriving locations, Cobblestones or Moonstones, in Chelmsford.

THURMAN PRINTING has taken orders from generations of Lowell politicians. After decades with Oklahoma- transplants Bev and Gary Martin at the helm, the business is changing hands.

In late- December, Bev announced the sale of the business on 1527 Middlesex St. to Minuteman Press.

“ I will be there to help for at least three months, this is a new beginning for me and truthfully I am excited about this adventure,” Bev wrote in a notice to customers. “ The owners Mark and Chris are super people and I told them at the beginning, if I did not make the sale I would still send my customers ( Friends) over to them.”

The decision comes after Gary Martin, her husband of 59 years, died in September following three years of failing health. Bev has encountered financial troubles in recent years, leading friends and customers to host an event at the Owl Diner in October to raise donations.

“Are they great printers? Absolutely,” former Mayor Bud Caulfield said. “Are they the most honest people I ever met? Yes.”

Martin described the new owners as professional, kind and considerate and urged existing customers to place orders with them. She said she will be getting a commission from these sales.

“ It was not easy to make this decision but it had to be done selling Thurman Prints was very tough but not having Gary was not easy at all,” she wrote. “ I am still processing it all.”

WITH TIM Sheehan’s departure from the Tewksbury Police Department, the town finds itself in need of a new police chief.

The town plans to use an independent assessment center to help select Tewksbury’s new chief of police. According to Town Manager Richard Montuori, the applicants are all in house. On Feb. 13 the candidates will participate in the center’s tests, which will include asking them to respond to hypothetical situations.

Sheehan, who plans to help with the transition, indicated the department could have a new chief by March.

In the meantime Deputy Police Chief John Voto will fill the role of interim chief for the department. Sheehan and Voto have worked side by side for years.

“As we prepare to say goodbye, we hold firm in the knowledge that we are far better for having his leadership and guidance this past decade,” Voto wrote in a message shared on the Police Department’s website.

IN WESTFORD, the race for the town gavel is on.

Local attorney Angela Harkness has decided to run for town moderator — handing in her paper work on the first day of the year, a public Facebook post shows.

Harkness will challenge Susan Spuhler. Spuhler has served as town moderator since being elected in 2017 and previously launched the Westford Pilot House, a program that provides resources for long- term unemployed professionals.

Spuhler said, rather bluntly over the phone, that it’s “wonderful” Harkness is running for the public position that is up for election every three years.

“ This is democracy,” Sphuler said. “ She’s a wonderful person.”

Harkness, who has lived in Westford for close to 30 years, works as an attorney for Harkness Law on Littleton Road and previously ran for School Committee in 2009, according to the Westford Eagle. The Sun left a message at Harkness’ law office but did not receive a call back.

Spuhler said she plans on running again in 2020. As town moderator, she said, she has tried to help residents plan out their warrant articles and presentations.

“ I try to be as fair as possible and listen and let people speak and give them a long enough time to explain their idea,” said Spuhler, who has lived in Westford since 1999.

Spuhler added that she has not heard of anyone else who is running for the position.

WHEN DRACUT’s Town Manager Screening Committee begins reviewing applications for the town’s top position, a familiar name will be on their list.

Mary Flanders Aicardi, a senior associate with the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management, said in an email that the organization, which is handling the search, doesn’t share information such as how many applications have been received.

But Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal confirmed in an email that she has submitted her application for the post.

Vandal took on the interim position in October after former Town Manager Jim Duggan’s abrupt resignation that month. She previously served as the assistant town manager and chief financial officer, and also served as interim town manager during the town’s last search in 2013 after former Town Manager Dennis Piendak left the position.

The five- member screening committee, which was appointed by the Dracut Board of Selectmen, is tasked with winnowing down the applicant pool before bringing finalists for the position to the board. The committee was originally scheduled to meet for the first time Dec. 30, but the meeting was cancelled due to inclement weather. It has not yet been rescheduled, according to the town.

The deadline for applications was Jan. 3, according a profile posted with the job advertisement, with applicants to be reviewed in January and interviews to be conducted in February. A decision is expected by the end of that month.

Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree at minimum, along with at least five years of experience as a town or city manager, or in another role that oversees operations of a public entity, according to the profile.

The committee’s members are: Zoning Board of Appeals member John Crowley; Dracut Housing Authority Commissioner Charles Kanavos; Affordable Housing Partnership Committee member Kathy Patenaude; Permanent Building Committee member Phil Thibault; and Dracut School Committee member Joseph Wilkie. This week’s Column was prepared by Reporters Elizabeth Dobbins in Lowell; Meg McIntyre in Dracut; Emma Murphy in Tewksbury; Luke O’Roark in Westford; and Enterprise Editor Christopher Scott.

Lowell Mayor Bill Samaras unveils his official portrait Thursday at City Hall, with the help of his granddaughters Caroline, 11, left, and Audrey Samaras, 9.

JULIA MALAKIE / LOWELL SUN

Robert Gignac, a former Lowell School Committee member, current chairman of the board at Megan’s House and Chief Operating Officer for the Lowell Community Charter Public School, was honored as a “Hero Among Us” by the Boston Celtics on Friday night thanks to his work battling the opioid epidemic, both as a School Committee member and via Megan’s House.

STUART CAHILL / BOSTON HERALD

Bookmark and Share