Billerica Select Board member (from left) Michael Rosa, Andrew Deslaurier, Chair Michael Riley, Kim Conway and John Burrows discuss with Town Counsel Mark Reich (standing) the nuances of setting up a policy that determines what flags can fly on the flagpole of the Billerica Public Library as a “pro-life” group sought approval to fly a pro-life flag. The board ultimately approved their request 4-1. (Peter Currier/Lowell Sun)
THE BILLERICA Select Board voted 4-1 Sept. 11 to allow a “pro-life” flag to fly at the Billerica Public Library from Oct. 16 to Oct. 31, per a request by a group of residents who wanted to fly the flag for “Pro-Life Month.”
The conversations within that meeting that preceded the vote contained a lot of things: arguments about First Amendment rights, accusations of bias and hypocrisy and detailed explanations of the implications of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. The discussion and subsequent vote were significant contributions to the fact that the whole meeting ran for four and a half hours before finally adjourning at 11:30 p.m.
There was one thing, however, that was completely missing from the discussion over whether to fly a pro-life flag on a public flagpole.
Not once in the entirety of the meeting did a single person use the word “abortion.” Nobody spoke the word when advocating for the flying of the flag during public comment. None of the members of the Select Board spoke the word when debating the flag or when discussing it with Town Counsel Mark Reich. In several letters that were written by supporters of the pro-life flag that were unable to be read during the discussion due to the late hour, never once did the word appear in print.
Pro-life, of course, is a term that commonly refers to those who are opposed to the legal termination of a pregnancy, otherwise known as an abortion. Such procedures are legal in Massachusetts, but after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, many states began enacting legislation restricting women’s rights to do so.
It isn’t necessarily surprising that the word wouldn’t come up often during the discussion, as it is not the Select Board’s job to enact abortion policies and the debate was, rightfully, centered mostly around the principles of the First Amendment. However, the fact that it was never said, even once, is certainly interesting.
It was brought up several times that the board members Michael Riley, Andrew Deslaurier and Kim Conway supported a proclamation in May in a 3-0 vote to declare June as LGBTQ Pride Month in Billerica and to raise the Pride flag on the very flagpole that will soon host the pro-life flag.
The vote for the Pride flag, which faced some debate as well with board members Michael Rosa and John Burrows feeling that the town shouldn’t take these kinds of positions, did include detailed discussion from advocates of that flag about the history of LGBTQ pride and the oppression of LGBTQ Americans going back decades.
The meaning and history of the pro-life movement, at least as far as the common definition is concerned, was never clearly discussed, though maybe not for lack of trying.
Deslaurier, who was the lone vote against flying the flag, pressed pro-life advocate DeeDee Dorrington a little during the discussion to talk about what the actual meaning behind the flag is, and the general goals of those who support its message.
“A flag could have been chosen that could have been more political, and more in your face. There are plenty of them out there, but that wasn’t the goal,” said Dorrington in response to Deslaurier. “The goal was to really try to unite the town for a month, or two weeks or 24 hours, whatever you’re comfortable giving us, and just looking at the flag and letting people decide for themselves what it means to them.”
On the website for the Pro-Life Flag Project, a group that is organizing to get this very flag flown across the globe, the meaning behind “pro-life” is much more plainly stated.
“We believe that creating, promoting, and proudly flying a unified, freely-reproducible, international pro-life flag will wildly help the movement in its already-unified aim: ending abortion,” says the group about its vision.
Meeting the moment … or just meeting
IT’S BACK to work for Lowell city councilors and members of the School Committee. Both bodies resume their regular schedules this week with the council meeting Tuesday night followed by the committee on Wednesday night.
The seven-member School Committee never really took a summer break. In the past eight months, despite a biweekly meeting schedule, the body has met 52 times, and that includes regularly scheduled meetings as well as all the subcommittee and special meetings. They also held numerous executive sessions required to address the United Teachers of Lowell contract, the hiring of the interim school superintendent and the independent investigation into allegations of unfair or unlawful hiring practices in the district.
In contrast, the 11-member council look like a bunch of pikers with their 56 weekly meetings within the same timeframe and same scope of meeting responsibilities (excepting for the council’s biweekly summer schedule). Poor Mayor Sokhary Chau, who as chair of both bodies, has presided over at least 100 meetings — and it’s only September.
Showing up is a key metric in life, and the School Committee shows up. Interestingly, what’s not showing up on their agenda is an update on the independent investigation.
The Lowell School Committee retained the law firm of Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten LLP to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of unfair or unlawful employment or hiring practices in the Lowell Public Schools.
BHPK completed its complainant interviews on May 19, and was expected to present a report to the committee sometime in July. After all the drama over hiring an outside firm, the issue has seemingly disappeared from the committee’s radar.
But back to the City Council, which for the second time in as many months features a backlogged agenda due to unfinished business of previous meetings.
In fact, at the Sept. 12 meeting, which continued agenda items from its Aug. 22 meeting, councilors received motion responses from the administration to motions that they hadn’t even moved approval on.
Practically speaking, that’s the way municipal government should work. The nuts and bolts of governing, like potholes, traffic and policing, are all handled by the respective departments freeing the council to focus on big-agenda issues like housing, sustainability and business development — to name just a few large-scale initiatives — that require city leadership and resident involvement.
Potholes, garbage pickups, traffic and street paving lists are the nuts and bolts of the administrative government. They are also the nuts and bolts of politicking, and those issues have dominated many council agendas.
If getting basic needs addressed in the city of Lowell requires relentless motions by councilors to the administration — there have been roughly 43 motions on traffic alone in the 2023 session — at least one of two things may be happening: the administration isn’t doing its job and some fundamental changes need to take place in leadership; or low-hanging, one-off fruit is being leveraged for political points. Maybe it’s both scenarios.
With the Nov. 7 election just 51 days or five council meetings away, longstanding issues like accessory dwelling units, homelessness, migrants, the anemic business climate, Hamilton Canal Innovation District parcel development and even the direct election of the mayor, which voters resoundingly approved in the 2021 election, remain open-ended issues, with little concrete, long-term results.
District representation has created more opportunities for long-neglected neighborhoods, but it has also expanded the balkanization that was present under the old at-large system of representation.
The trick for future councils will be to represent neighborhood identity without gutting the heart and soul of the Mill City overall.
LITTLETON JUST wrapped up its $20 million project that will address PFAS contamination in the town’s drinking water. With a new treatment plant completed on Whitcomb Avenue, residents can expect cleaner water, free of so-called “forever chemicals” soon.
By some accounts, Littleton is ahead of other communities in Massachusetts in removing PFAS, it being both a relatively new discovery that researchers and scientists are continuing to study and understand. It’s understood that PFAS, abbreviated from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can originate from industry and manufacturing and contaminate drinking water and soil, leading to varying health impacts on those who are exposed.
Though state aid is supplying financial support for towns and cities impacted by the pollutant, it seems as though other communities are years behind Littleton. It was already effortful for the town to find the funding and support for treatment, according to some officials. Hundreds of communities are currently reckoning with the problem.
In Chelmsford, officials are finding possible PFAS remediation somewhat challenging. At 270 Billerica Road, a licensed site professional documented PFAS that the property’s applicant, DH Property Holdings, was then apparently notified about but failed to disclose to the town. The Planning Board later granted special permits to DH Property Holdings, all while not knowing about the supposed contamination.
Because the PFAS did not originate at the property, it’s still relatively unclear who exactly has to deal with it. Representatives for 270 Billerica Road maintain that they did not knowingly deceive or misrepresent the situation, but rather truly did not know about the PFAS.
Planning Board associate member Joel Luna wrote a memo on the issue citing evidence that there was knowledge about the PFAS at the property during the board’s hearing processes and that, without the information about the contamination, the board could not make a proper decision regarding the permits.
“Because of the lack of PFAS contamination information in the information provided to the Board, the Board has not been enabled to ensure that the requirements of the bylaws have been met, especially where it is reasonable to believe that the project as permitted could violate those requirements,” Luna wrote. “In addition, the Board might have influenced material changes to the project in the hearing process that have not been implemented. Therefore, the conclusion is that a lack of PFAS contamination information in the information provided to the Board is material to the decisions granted.”
After four hours of discussion concerning other properties, the Planning Board pushed its discussion about 270 Billerica Road back to a future meeting. There’s a possibility the board could open the matter to a hearing and revoke the property’s permits, given the new information.
Quiet week? Not a chance
OUTGOING TYNGSBORO Town Manager Matt Hanson may be hoping for a quiet last week on the job. He may not get that. According to social media, the Select Board will be asked to consider joining the emergency regional dispatch center.
The social media posts are alarmist. Considering neighboring Dracut’s early experience with the regional emergency dispatch center, the fears are not entirely unreasonable.
The regional center is in Tewksbury, and the staff came mainly from that town. They had more familiarity with Tewksbury, causing some initial confusion. Dracut worried that the dispatchers wouldn’t know where to direct responders if, for example, a call came in for “the school complex” — the high school, two elementary schools and a middle school on Lakeview Avenue. Criticism subsided over time.
But once Monday night is in the rearview mirror, Hanson can look forward to his new job in Bedford, where he will be getting a nearly $50,000 pay raise. He is currently paid $164,000. His annual salary in Bedford will be $212,000 and he will also receive an $8,000 expense package.
Hanson’s successor, former Assistant Town Manager Colin Loiselle, has a three-year contract with the town that sets his starting salary at $160,000 and annual increases after that.
This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Peter Currier in Billerica, Melanie Gilbert in Lowell, Cameron Morsberger in Littleton and Chelmsford, and Prudence Brighton in Tyngsboro.