City Council to examine creation of information phone line

LOWELL — Concerns voiced by seniors who said they often have trouble knowing who to call in City Hall when they have questions and concerns prompted City Councilor Bill Samaras to propose the city look into creating a 311-information telephone line.

The City Council unanimously approved Samaras’ motion Tuesday night to have City Manager Kevin Murphy investigate the cost of creating a line.

Murphy welcomed the suggestion, saying the city’s online EGov and See-click-fix websites are being examined, and that this new proposal will fit into those discussions.

The new telephone line would provide a general number for those who aren’t Internet-savvy to have an easy-to-remember number to call when they have issues.

Councilors also voted to approve discussing Corey Belanger’s motion to discuss reorganizing the Department of Planning and Development to separate the city’s Economic Development Officer and create a new department dedicated to economic development.

Belanger said he wants to be sure the economic development officer isn’t distracted by grant-writing or planning issues.

Bill Samaras and James Milinazzo voiced concerns about such a proposal. Samaras suggested City Manager Kevin Murphy be given time to take a look at the departments now that he is manager, and said the discussion could be part of that process.

The council also proclaimed April as “Donate Life Month” in Lowell at the request of the New England Organ Bank. The designation is aimed at getting more Lowellians to become organ donors.

“We all can help save someone’s life by enrolling in the Massachusetts Donor Registry,” said Mayor Rodney Elliott.

Councilors also received handmade scarves from Sarith Khim, secretary of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia, who is visiting the city this week to strengthen cultural ties between Lowell and Cambodia.

Elliott presented Khim with a key to the city.

Councilors also approved a motion from Ed Kennedy to request Murphy set an annual date, in the spring, for the city to hold municipal lien auctions. The auctions, which have raised more than $5 million for the city over the last two years, have so far been held at various times during the year.

Kennedy suggested having them at the same time each year could make it easier for the city to budget the money raised, and make it easier for those interested in purchasing the liens.

Murphy welcomed the motion, saying he was already looking into doing that.

Follow Robert Mills on Twitter and Tout @Robert_Mills.

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City Council votes to explore high-school building options

LOWELL — Even though the School Committee has voted unanimously to make the proposed $245.4 million addition and renovation of Lowell High School its priority building project, City Councilor Corey Belanger said Tuesday night he wants the City Council to examine the assessment of the cost of a new high school built at other locations.

Belanger’s motion — which passed, 5-3, with Councilors Jim Milinazzo, Bill Martin and Bill Samaras opposed and Edward Kennedy absent — refers the assessment report to an ad-hoc subcommittee.

“I want to assure we’re looking at all avenues,” Belanger said. “What’s interesting is the cost of a new high school at its current location is about $245 million. The cost of a new high school at another location, such as South Common, is about $290 million. They’re not all that far apart. I just want to make sure as we move forward and the dialogue continues that all stakeholders are involved in this discussion, this process. It’s a very big decision. I just want to make sure everybody’s involved.”

Milinazzo said the council received estimates on Cawley Stadium and South Common.

“I do not believe I will support this motion,” Milinazzo said. “Even though he is well intentioned, I believe what he is requesting is already happening. If we’re fortunate enough to be shortlisted, when MSBA comes back in here, they will do their own assessment. I am fearful that if this council goes on record to even refer this to the ad hoc committee, we will not be putting forward a unified vote. We were unanimous to support this and unanimous to make the high school the priority, but I’m afraid if we’re asking for additional assessments to be done, we may actually delay the process. The neighborhoods have been involved, but we need to move forward.”

Samaras added, “I understand Councilor Belanger’s request, but there’s a process that’s already in place being led by the School Committee. The one thing I know about this process is it allows for input throughout the process. These situations are fragile. Things can happen. MSBA can say, ‘Do you want it? Or do you want to study further?’ I’d rather go at the pace we’re going.”

The high-school project is by far the largest of the five school-building projects of which the city has shown interest in receiving funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The City Council voted two weeks ago to submit “statements of interest” to the MSBA for the high-school project and four other projects.

The other four projects approved for submission to the state were:

* A $26.7 million addition and renovation of the Wang Middle School;

* A $26.5 million addition and renovation of the Daley Middle School;

* A $27.2 million addition and renovation of the Robinson Middle School;

* A $36 million addition and renovation of the Rogers School, which would transition it to a pre-K through Grade 8 school.

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Lowell councilors OK $175G salary for new City Manager Murphy

LOWELL — The City Council voted Tuesday night to appoint state Rep. Kevin Murphy as its new city manager after emerging from an executive session to discuss the terms of his employment.

The council voted last week to select the 61-year-old Murphy as city manager, but needed to finalize the memorandum of understanding, which they did on Tuesday night in closed session before returning to open session to take an official vote.

The council voted 8-0, with Councilor Edward Kennedy absent, to appoint Murphy as city manager effective Monday, with an annual salary of $175,000 to be accrued hourly and paid on a weekly basis.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding, a copy of which was provided to The Sun, Murphy’s employment is governed by the personnel ordinance as it sets forth certain benefits including vacation time, sick leave, holidays, personal days, family leave, bereavement leave and personal leave. Murphy is also subject to the city’s grade and step schedule, but he will not be entitled to compensation for unused accumulated sick leave. Murphy will have full use of a city automobile and agrees to comply with the city’s vehicle-use policy.

Murphy told the council during his interview he would not require an employment contract, then confirmed last week he would not seek a contract. He said he hopes to start as manager in mid-April and Acting City Manager Michael Geary said at the close of Tuesday night’s council meeting that it was last meeting in that capacity.

Murphy, who was in attendance during the public portion of Tuesday night’s meeting, did not stick around for the hour-long executive session during which the council discussed his agreement as well as pending, unrelated litigation.

Murphy is a Lowell Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives since 1997, including service on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. He made his farewell speech in the House Tuesday. He lives in the city’s Highlands neighborhood, which he has represented along with the Acre neighborhood.

Before serving in elected office, Murphy worked for 13 years at Lowell City Hall as an assistant city solicitor, from 1983-1996. Murphy has operated a private law practice, based in Chelmsford, since 1983. In that capacity, he has represented the management at the Lowell Housing Authority, the driver’s union at the Lowell Regional Transit Authority and the Dracut School Committee. He said last week he will leave that private practice before taking the reins at City Hall.

Murphy will follow Bernie Lynch, who served 7 1/2 years and whose resignation was effective March 10. Murphy will be the city’s 16th city manager since Lowell adopted Plan E government.

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Kevin Murphy named new Lowell city manager

State Rep. Kevin Murphy was named Lowell’s city manager.

By Lyle Moran

LOWELL – State Rep. Kevin Murphy says he has always viewed the city manager’s position as the role in Lowell in which a public official can have the greatest positive impact.

The City Council voted Monday night to select Murphy as city manager and give the longtime representative the opportunity to lead the Mill City as he has long desired.

“As city manager, you can do so much to help out the residents and accomplish so much for the city, so I really think being selected as city manager is the crowning achievement in my public career,” Murphy, 61, said in an interview at his home Monday night. “I’m honored and humbled by the council’s confidence in me, and I’m looking forward to doing the best I can to help out the city.”

Murphy told The Sun that as manager, he plans to work quickly to tackle the major challenges facing the city, with addressing public-safety concerns as his top priority.

He pointed to shootings in the Highlands neighborhood, where he lives, last weekend as examples of the urgency of reducing crime in Lowell. Murphy said one approach he will take to boosting public safety will be seeking additional support from partners like the state police and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.

“We have to deal with these shootings and other issues swiftly and severely, and that’s what I plan to do when I’m city manager,” said Murphy, who gathered with family and friends at his home Monday night to celebrate.
The council chose Murphy on an 8-1 vote on the first ballot.

Only Councilor John Leahy voted for another candidate, casting his ballot for former City Councilor George Ramirez, his brother-in-law. Leahy later changed his vote to make Murphy’s selection unanimous.

The council tasked Mayor Rodney Elliott and City Solicitor Christine O’Connor with negotiating a salary and determining a starting date for Murphy, who told the council during his interview he would not require an employment contract.

Murphy confirmed Monday night he will not seek a contract and said he hopes to start as manager in mid-April. He also said he will resign from the Legislature and leave his private law practice by the middle of the month before taking the reins at City Hall.

Murphy is a Lowell Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives since 1997, including service on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. He lives in the city’s Highlands neighborhood, which he has represented along with the Acre neighborhood.

Before serving in elected office, Murphy worked for 13 years at Lowell City Hall as an assistant city solicitor, from 1983-1996.

Murphy has operated a private law practice, based in Chelmsford, since 1983. In that capacity, he has represented the management at the Lowell Housing Authority, the driver’s union at the Lowell Regional Transit Authority and the Dracut School Committee.

Murphy will need to hire a new chief financial officer and new director of planning and development, and said the CFO hiring will be the most important one he will make.

Elliott said during the meeting one reason he voted for Murphy was because he was looking for someone who will bring together a good team.

Councilors also said both during the meeting and afterward that they supported Murphy because they believe he has the experience to do the job, a deep knowledge of city issues, and the passion to move the city forward in a positive fashion.

Councilor William Samaras said he believes Murphy has the ability to bridge the gap between different factions in the city, while Councilor Corey Belanger said he is pleased Murphy is making public safety his top priority and the council has high expectations for him.

“Certainly he brought a lot of passion (to the interview), and I’m optimistic he will bring that same passion to the job,” Councilor Bill Martin said at Monday’s meeting.

Leahy, who received clearance from the Ethics Commission to participate in the process despite his family ties to Ramirez, said he wanted someone for the job who has municipal experience. Ramirez is the executive vice president of Devens operations for MassDevelopment, a position in which he oversees the redevelopment of the former army base.

The other city manager finalists were North Reading Town Administrator Greg Balukonis, former East Providence City Manager Peter Graczykowski, and Blackstone Town Administrator Daniel Keyes.

Murphy will follow Bernie Lynch, who served 7 1/2 years and whose resignation was effective March 10. Murphy will be the city’s 16th city manager since Lowell adopted Plan E government.

“He sees this as an opportunity to give back to the city and a capstone to his public service,” said Murphy’s wife, Ann.

Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.

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Lowell city manager finalist drops out

LOWELL — One of the six finalists for the city manager position withdrew Monday evening prior to his interview with the City Council.

Robert Bruner, the former city manager of Birmingham, Mich., was scheduled to be interviewed by the council via video at 6 p.m., but informed the city’s Human Relations department of his withdrawal just after 5 p.m.

Bruner told The Sun he decided to withdraw after being offered an interim city manager position Tuesday in Mount Clemens, Mich.

Bruner interviewed for that position on Monday night.

On Tuesday night, the Lowell City Council interviewed Peter Graczykowski, the former city manager of East Providence.

On Wednesday night, the council will interview former City Councilor George Ramirez at 6 p.m. and Blackstone Town Administrator Daniel Keyes at 7:30 p.m.

The council will interview North Reading Town Administrator Greg Balukonis at 6 p.m. Thursday and state Rep. Kevin Murphy at 7:30 p.m.

The council also voted Tuesday to hold a special meeting Monday at 6 p.m. to select a new city manager.

For more on this story, see Wednesday’s Sun or visit

Follow Moran on Twitter and Tout @lylemoran.

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Order set for Lowell city manager interviews

LOWELL — The schedule for the City Council’s interviews of the six city manager finalists has been established. They are:

* Tuesday, March 25: Former Birmingham, Mich., City Manager Robert Bruner at 6 p.m..; former East Providence City Manager Peter Graczykowski at 7:30 p.m.

* Wednesday, March 26: Former City Councilor George Ramirez at 6:00 p.m.; Blackstone Town Administrator Daniel Keyes at 7:30 p.m.

* Thursday, March 27: North Reading Town Administrator Greg Balukonis at 6:00 p.m.; State Representative Kevin Murphy at 7:30 p.m.

Bruner is expected to be interviewed via video. All interviews are open to the public and will be conducted in the City Council Chambers.

No date has been set for when the council will vote on selecting a new manager.

Interviews of the two city auditor finalists have also been scheduled for Wednesday, April 2. The council will interview Dharam Dixit of Lowell at 6 p.m. Dixit is the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s director of finance for its division of community services. Patrick Zacchini a certified public accountant from Manalapan, N.J., will interview at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Follow Moran on Twitter @lylemoran

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City Council seeks update on quality of paved streets in Lowell

In other business Tuesday, the council:

* Approved Leahy’s motion requesting Acting City Manager Michael Geary have the proper department inspect the paved streets from last season for quality control.

* Approved Councilor Ed Kennedy’s motion requesting the council’s Public Safety Subcommittee and Geary review the 2009 Matrix Study and work with the Lowell Police Department on a continuing basis to satisfy the recommendations included in the study, develop up-to-date policies and procedures, and make any other improvements necessary to make the LPD eligible for national or state accreditation.

* Approved Councilor Dan Rourke and Corey Belanger’s motion requesting the City Council have discussion regarding parking in city neighborhoods.

* Approved Belanger’s motion requesting Geary provide a report on the income produced on a 75-cent additional meals tax enacted July 1, 2010.

* Approved Elliott’s motion requesting Geary provide an update on the status of the Smith Baker Center property.

* Accepted the resignation of Dorothy K. Duval from the Hunger Homeless Commission.

* Voted to cancel next Tuesday’s City Council meeting to hold one of three nights of city-manager interviews.

* Approved constable bonds for Raymond Cote, Dana Berkeley, Christian Sewell, Gerald Sewell and Delia Ruiz.

* Forwarded to an April 15 public hearing on the Ayers City Industrial Park Plan.

* Forwarded to a public hearing an ordinance to extend INST zoning to include 1291 Middlesex St.

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Lowell Council ratifies fire union’s pact

LOWELL — The City Council on Tuesday night approved, by an 8-1 vote, a new contract the city reached with its firefighters’ union covering the period of July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015.

The pact called for union members to receive a 1.5 percent pay increase in fiscal 2013, a 2.5 percent pay increase in the current fiscal year, and a 2.5 percent pay increase in fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

In order to fund retroactive payments under the contract, the council voted to establish a Salary Reserve Stabilization Fund and to transfer $950,000 from the general stabilization fund into the reserve.

The council then voted to transfer $400,000 from its new reserve into the Fire Department’s salary and wage account and also transferred another $500,000 from various other accounts to the same salary and wage account.

The firefighters’ union, Local 853, agreed to some concessions as part of the contract.

New union members will no longer to be able to buy back a percentage of their accumulated sick leave or buy back five sick days per year.

The union also agreed to changes governing employees who are injured while on duty.

Police officers and firefighters found to be injured in the line of duty are allowed by state law Chapter 41, Section 111F, to collect their salaries free of all taxes until their recuperation is complete and they return to work.

Under the new agreement, while a firefighter is receiving 111F benefits, he or she will no longer be able to accrue time for sick leave or vacation.

Firefighters out on 111F also may be required to perform “light duty” on a full-time or part-time basis if supported by a physician and there are light duty tasks available the member could perform.

Members will receive a one-time .5 percent increase to their base pay as a result of the 111F amendments, which will become effective July 1.

The HAZMAT and EMT stipends will be increased by .25 percent under the contract.

Mayor Rodney Elliott was the lone vote in opposition to the contract. He voted against prior union contracts with similar pay increases and said he wanted to remain consistent.

Follow Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.

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Hearing on city manager search set for March 12

(Note: This corrects an earlier story that contained an incorrect meeting date.)

LOWELL — The City Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday. March 12, at 7 p.m. to get input from residents on the ongoing search for a new city manager to replace Bernie Lynch, whose resignation takes effect on March 10.

The city has received applications from 29 candidates for the position.

Each of the nine city councilors will select five finalists from the pool of 29 candidates, the council decided during a special meeting Monday night.

The five candidates who get the most votes from individual councilors will be selected as finalists.

Councilors will not make their selections until after Wednesday’s public hearing so that residents have a chance to give input on the qualities finalists should have.

Councilors gave themselves until Friday to make their selections. After that, finalists’ names will be made public.

The known applicants are Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, and former City Councilor George Ramirez, executive vice president for Devens operations for MassDevelopment, essentially serving as a manager of the former Army base, which is being redeveloped.

Councilors will also select four candidates for city auditor from a pool of 10 using a similar process.

The council is expected to vote at its regularly scheduled meeting tonight to appoint Karen O’Beirne, the assistant auditor, to be acting city auditor since Auditor Sheryl Wright is leaving. They are also expected to vote to appoint Angela Gitschier, the assistant clerk, to serve as acting city clerk while City Clerk Michael Geary serves as acting city manager.

Immediately after the special City Council meeting on Monday, the Finance subcommittee met and voted to recommend to the full City Council that Geary will be paid $145,000 per year — the lowest advertised salary for the permanent city manager’s position — while he serves as acting city manager.

The subcommittee recommended the acting clerk and acting auditor be paid $20,000 annually more than than they currently make as assistant clerk and assistant auditor, though neither will really get a $20,000 raise since they are expected to remain in the positions for four to six weeks.

Those temporary salary figures will be finalized by the full City Council at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night.

Follow Robert Mills on Twitter and Tout @Robert_Mills.

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City Council seeks portrait guidance

LOWELL — While acknowledging it does not know where to put former Mayor Patrick Murphy’s controversial portrait, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask its rules subcommittee to establish guidelines as to what the mayoral portrait should consist of.

Murphy’s portrait shows him holding hands with his wife and young child with their backs to the camera in a leafy alley. It’s in sharp contrast to the portraits that line the walls of City Hall showing former mayors in dress clothes, staring straight ahead, while often standing in the City Council chamber.

City Councilor Rita Mercier first voiced her opposition to it last week to a Sun reporter, then filed the motion for Tuesday’s council meeting.

“I never thought I’d see the day when someone had to make this motion,” Mercier said Tuesday night. “There’s no guideline on being dressed up, so maybe I should have worn pajamas and slippers to the meeting. … (The proposed fiscal 2014 budget) says mayor’s portrait. It doesn’t say mayor’s family portrait.

“That picture is a beautiful picture. It just doesn’t fit in this setting. It belongs on his mantel in his home. It’s not a reality show, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians.’ It’s not about turning your back to the public. It’s supposed to be about the person chosen to lead the City Council leading in a dignified way. Although there are no official rules in place, it’s a given.”

Councilor Jim Milinazzo clarified by saying the vote was to address future mayoral portraits.

“I don’t think this motion was to look back and say to Mayor Murphy, ‘You cannot hang that portrait in City Hall,’ ” said Milinazzo.

Mayor Rodney Elliott said the lack of existing protocol makes it difficult to decide how to handle Murphy’s portrait.

“The challenge is moving the portraits to where they will fit and where they will hang. There really is no rhyme or reason other than the most current hang outside and then shift all over the place,” he said.

Elliott said the line item in the budget deals with the mayor’s portrait.

“The definition of a portrait is an image of an individual. It is taxpayers’ money and it should be an individual portrait. I don’t know what to do with it right now as the current mayor to go along with what has been done in the past. It’s not consistent. It’s not on canvas. It’s not framed. We do have many more issues, but this has been an issue in the past with prior mayors.”

Councilor John Leahy said, “I don’t mind anybody being different, but in this case, we’re looking for a traditional portrait of a mayor.”

In other business, one week after blocking one board appointment of City Manager Bernie Lynch while approving two others, the council voted 8-1 to request Lynch hold further appointments until a new manager is hired.

Speaking in support of his motion, Elliott said, “Now that we’ve initiated the hiring process for a new city manager, it might be a good idea to hold off on city-manager appointments. Long-term appointments and individuals play an important role on not only regulatory boards, but other commissions. We’ve done it in the past and I believe it’s good practice and good policy that we hold off on these until a new city manager is in place.”

Milinazzo, the lone vote against Elliott’s motion, said he opposed it because it could be in violation of the city charter.

“I understand the reason behind Mayor Elliott’s motion. I hope at this point in time since the manager announced he’s leaving that he got the message. If it violates the charter, it’s not a motion I can support.”

Interestingly, Milinazzo said he supported a similar motion in 2006.

“In this business, you can’t have a do-over, but thinking about it, I’m not sure it was the right vote eight years ago. I’m not supporting this motion so I’m not being consistent, but I believe after it’s been discussed the last three meetings that the manager has gotten the message. In the spirit of what the mayor is trying to achieve here, I hope you get the message and won’t be bringing many appointments forward, but in possible violation of the charter, I don’t support this.”

Lynch quickly said he thought Elliott’s motion was in violation of the charter, but added, “It’s not my intention to wave the charter around. It’s not my intention to bring any further appointments moving forward unless it’s an emergency and we need to get someone on a regulatory board. I would notify the council. I think operation of the city is crucial, but I concur with the notion we should let the next manager make those appointments and I have no intention of bringing other appointments forward at this time.”

Councilor Edward Kennedy said, “The motion is worded as a request so I don’t see it as a violation of the charter. I will support the motion, but if any appointments are compelling, I hope he will bring them forward. It is a request so I think we should pass it and move forward.”

Councilor Corey Belanger said, “You are here until March 10 and you need all the powers you can to run the city efficiently, but I appreciate you conceding here. I see problems that could arise with appointments that could divide this council. I’ve already had to say ‘no’ to some good people and I don’t want to have do this again.”

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