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Hellos, goodbyes and what the hecks

The newly reopened Riverwalk between Boott Mills and the Lowell Memorial Auditorium closed March 1, 2024, after the façade fell off the adjacent building behind the Mass Mills apartment building. A pile of bricks can be seen from the Cox Memorial (Bridge Street) Bridge on April 19, 2024, still blocking the path. (Melanie Gilbert/Lowell Sun)

NOT THAT anybody is counting, but it is Day 52 since a large section of the uppermost brick façade of the Mass Mills IV project crashed at least 30 feet onto the Riverwalk located between Boott Mills and the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Both approaches — from behind the Boott Mills complex on the Merrimack River side, as well the Concord River side across from the Lowell Memorial Auditorium — are closed, bisecting the popular downtown walking route.

City Councilor Erik Gitschier’s April 2 motion requesting City Manager Tom Golden update the council on the status of the river walkway is still pending. Signage on the fences blocking access note that “Due to safety issues involving an adjacent building, the Riverwalk … is closed until further notice.”

Several festivals in that area are coming up including The Town and the City next weekend. The Lowell Summer Music Series opens June 21 and, of course, Lowell’s storied Folk Festival returns in July. Roughly as many days remain before those summer events kick off as the walkway has been closed. Let’s hope that mess is cleaned up, made secure and open to the public in time to welcome a crowd of both hometown and out-of-town visitors.

Under the category of “projects and people that work,” you’ll find Councilor Rita Mercier’s name. She has 29 years serving the city of Lowell, crusading for residents every Tuesday night in the council chambers. Since 2004, Mercier has also worked for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office at its Summer Street offices. The first thing visitors notice when they enter the MSO front hallway is that the whole place smells like soap.

The MSO, under Mercier’s watchful eye, provides a little-known, in-house laundromat for use by the homeless population of Lowell. An industrial-sized washer and dryer occupy a room to the right of her desk.

Though she talks tough on the council floor on a whole range of issues, Mercier has a soft spot for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised — whom she calls “those less fortunate” — and she takes her role as guardian of the laundry room quite seriously. And given the line this reporter saw of unhoused people patiently waiting their turn to use the machines, she probably won’t say no to donations of laundry soap and dryer sheets.

Tara Hong wants to clean up, too, just on the political side of the house. He’s launched another bid to unseat current state Rep. Rady Mom in the 18th Middlesex District.

Only 68 votes prevented the political newcomer from overtaking the four-term Mom in the September 2022 Democratic primary.

Civic engagement was a pillar of Hong’s previous campaign. Hong has voiced his support for democracy in Cambodia, where Hong was born, and participated in several actions protesting the regime of former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as well as to denounce his transfer of power to his eldest son, Hun Manet.

Hong regularly attends and speaks at both School Committee and City Council meetings, and is a familiar face at a wide variety of events around the city.

“I’m running because I believe the people in our community deserve to have their voices heard,” Hong said by email on Saturday. “I will show up, answer your phone calls and emails, and build better constituent services for everyone in the district. I will also advocate for greater transparency at the state house to uphold our democratic values.”

His first fundraiser is Thursday, April 25, and in keeping with his campaign’s multicultural vibe, it will be held at Panela, a woman-owned business in the Acre that serves Colombian-style food.

As one door opens with Hong’s candidacy, another closes with Phil Shea’s announcement that he was stepping down as chair of the Lowell Housing Authority board effective April 18.

Shea was appointed in 2019 by then-City Manager Eileen Donoghue to fill an unexpired board position term. He was reappointed to his current five-year term, which expires at the end of June.

When reached by phone Saturday morning, Shea said that it was time to move on.

“It’s time to slow it down a little bit,” the almost 83-year-old Shea said. In addition to the LHA, Shea is vice chairman of the Lowell Regional Transit Authority and several other boards. “A couple years ago, I had two heart attacks in two weeks.”

His situation was so dire, he was given last rites and taken off life support, only to miraculously awaken.

“I shouldn’t even be sitting here talking with you,” he said.

A year ago, his Lahey Hospital & Medical Center doctors told Shea to dial back his engagements and stress level — advice he thinks is long overdue.

“For a kid who used to shine shoes on Market Street for 10 cents a shine, and grew up on Lewis Street in the LHA’s North Common Village, what a way to go out as the chairman of the Housing Authority,” Shea said.

The Long Meadow Golf Club member said he will work on his handicap, but will also keep up — albeit at a distance — on the LHA and housing in the city.

“I’m hoping history will show that when I left the Housing Authority, that I left it in good hands and left it in the right direction,” Shea said.

The Sun spoke at length with Shea and a longer profile piece on his work on behalf of the city of Lowell is planned.

Busy week for Trahan

U.S. REP. Lori Trahan had a busy week in Washington.

Wednesday, in particular, was a banner day for the congresswoman, as evidenced by the flurry of press releases issued by her team.

That day, Trahan announced legislation to designate April 17, 2025 as Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day to recognize the 50th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

She also pushed for improvements to the American Privacy Rights Act, a bipartisan privacy package currently under discussion, that includes provisions of Trahan’s bipartisan, bicameral Data Elimination and Limiting Extensive Tracking and Exchange Act. The package would allow Americans to request that data brokers stop future collection of their data, but unlike her DELETE Act, it does not give them the right to have previously collected data deleted. It also includes provisions of Trahan’s Terms-of-service Labeling, Design and Readability (TLDR) Act, which would require that online companies make their terms-of-service contracts more accessible, transparent and understandable for consumers.

Trahan believes APRA needs stronger transparency provisions, including requiring large tech companies to allow independent researchers to analyze content moderation, algorithm and design actions on platforms.

“It’s essential to privacy and kids’ safety online that large data holders are transparent about their business practices and are held accountable by third parties,” Trahan said. “The best way to do that is to require that qualified researchers are able to study how the decisions made by powerful online platforms are complying with the privacy laws we hope to pass in this committee and impacting users.”

The same day, Trahan secured a commitment from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to work with Massachusetts leaders as they respond to the Steward Health Care crisis.

“Steward is facing a ‘significant cash crunch’ because of blatant mismanagement by company executives who have rewarded themselves with multi-million-dollar salaries while accruing massive debts. Unsurprisingly, Steward has failed repeatedly – including in response to requests from myself and my colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation – to provide transparency regarding its intentions to maintain the operation of their nine hospitals in our home state,” Trahan said. “Mr. Secretary, many of the hardworking families I represent just want to know that their government is paying attention to this issue and taking action to keep their hospitals open. I’m hoping I can count on you to maintain a line of communication with Massachusetts leaders to ensure that every possible action is taken and resource is available to keep community hospitals like Holy Family Hospital open and serving patients.”

“Congresswoman, we will do everything we can,” Becerra responded. “We are ready to work with Massachusetts to make sure health care is available to communities.”

That was followed on Friday by Trahan and several other members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation writing a letter requesting answers on the proposed sale of Stewardship Health to Optum Health. See Monday’s edition of The Sun for more on that.

And on Saturday, Trahan voted to pass a bipartisan legislative package to deliver aid to U.S. allies and surge humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

“While innocent Palestinians are on the brink of famine, Russia is taking ground as Ukraine runs low on munitions, Iran and its proxies are launching attacks in the Middle East, and China is trying to extend its reach in the Indo-Pacific. … This package is far from perfect – it certainly isn’t the bill I would have written – but it is a bipartisan compromise that makes clear the United States will not turn our backs on innocent civilians and our allies,” Trahan said. “We will always stand against authoritarianism and for freedom, and today we can do that without putting a single American boot on the ground in a foreign conflict.”

At long last, a DPW for Tyngsboro

TIME IS relative. Albert Einstein taught us that, and the state Legislature seems constantly to prove it. The latest evidence? It’s been 18 months since the Tyngsboro Town Meeting sent a home rule petition to the Legislature allowing the town to create a Department of Public Works. Last week, it cleared the final hurdle with approval from the state Senate. The legislation is now on its way to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk for signature.

But it’s not just the Legislature that takes its time over such things. The town had long talked of creating the department. In fact, the idea had been kicked around for more than two decades before being put to a vote in October 2022.

Before that vote, Ron Keohane, then-chair of the Select Board, said, “Many current departments have some responsibility for public works and infrastructure. A DPW will merge these departments into one infrastructure group. A DPW will be a single point of contact to bring efficiencies with better coordination, communication and oversight.”

Under the new department’s span of control will be sewer services, town cemeteries, upkeep of parks and recreation areas, maintenance of streets and roads, as well as buildings and grounds. The town’s elected Sewer Commission will still have some authority within the new department.

The town should be prepared to get the new department up and running. Town Manager Colin Loiselle formed a DPW implementation working group last fall with the goal of a smooth transition once the legislation passed.

All stakeholders have reviewed and approved an organization chart. Loiselle and Human Resources Director Brigette Bell have created a job description for the new DPW superintendent.

Next up is the appointment of that superintendent and the development of short- and long-term plans for the department’s future.

The last time Tyngsboro sent a home rule petition to the Legislature was in October 2021. It took 15 months for that petition to wend its way through the legislative process and arrive on former Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. Baker signed it in the last hours of his term.

Baker’s signature came just in the nick of time. Had it arrived on his desk any later, the bill would have expired with the close of the legislative session that began in January 2021.

That home rule petition created the position of town manager. Previously, Tyngsboro had a town administrator, a position with more limited authority.

No election party in Wilmington

LOCAL ELECTION season is ongoing in Greater Lowell but while many of the communities in our coverage area have had exciting ballots with contested races, it seems that not every town is joining the party this year.

In Wilmington, voters who turn up to the polls will be able to vote on four different races: A seat on the town’s Select Board, two seats on the School Committee, one seat on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School Committee and the role of town moderator. Each of these seats is for a three-year term.

However, the sample ballots for Wilmington look rather sparse, because out of all four races, not a single seat is being contested. Unless a last-minute write-in campaign for a challenger takes shape for any of these seats, the makeup of the town’s elected boards and committees seems pretty much set for the next year.

Without competition, Select Board member Lilia Maselli, Town Moderator Jonathan Eaton and Shawsheen Tech School Committee member Charles Fiore are each in line for second terms in their respective seats. Wilmington School Committee member David Ragsdale is in line for his third term on the committee, and he will be joined by newcomer Nicholas Golden, who is running for the seat currently occupied by longtime member MJ Byrnes, who chose not to seek reelection after 12 years on the committee.

Higher turnout is almost always preferred in any election, especially local elections where turnout tends to be lower than in state and federal elections. However, with no competition to speak of on this year’s ballot, it will be fascinating to see how many people go to the polls for the sake of going to the polls, and how many choose to simply stay home on voting day.

For those who do choose to cast a ballot in Wilmington, election day this year is April 27 with polls open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

What may be more fascinating than the overall turnout is the number of people who cast early ballots in an uncontested election. In-person early voting began April 16, and will be available at the Town Clerk’s Office from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until April 24.

Campbell defends Healey against Ayotte’s barb

HOURS AFTER New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Kelly Ayotte accused Gov. Maura Healey of being soft on crime, Attorney General Andrea Campbell defended her predecessor’s record during a radio interview Wednesday afternoon.

Ayotte, a Republican and the Granite State’s former attorney general, made the jab on social media, as her campaign circulated a news story about the armed robbery of a mail carrier in Nashua Tuesday afternoon that involved a car with Massachusetts license plates. Nashua Police on Wednesday arrested 18-year-old Baraka Janvier of Lowell after he turned himself in.

“Shocker: Mass. license plate involved in Nashua robbery,” Ayotte said on X Wednesday morning. “Unlike @MassGovernor, I don’t tolerate soft-on-crime policies. As Governor, I’ll ensure criminals who come to New Hampshire from Massachusetts find no sanctuary in our state.”

Campbell, asked about Ayotte’s tweet on Boston Public Radio, called it “ridiculous” and “nonsense.”

“Obviously, our governor used to be the attorney general, and at no point would even law enforcement say that she was soft on crime,” said Campbell, who suggested the claim could be fueled by “Republican counterparts” reacting to Healey’s push to pardon misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions.

The Governor’s Council unanimously approved Healey’s mega-pardon proposal earlier this month.

“That is a racial justice issue. Overwhelmingly, Black folks were overcharged, over-sentenced for marijuana, which now you can’t even be charged for possession in Massachusetts,” Campbell said. “So as you push for those criminal legal reforms, at the same time you can also support law enforcement. You can also show up and take guns and drugs off our streets, and protect the safety of our residents. We do it in our office every day — she did it as attorney general and that has not changed as governor.”

This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Melanie Gilbert in Lowell, Prudence Brighton in Tyngsboro, Peter Currier in Wilmington, State House News Service’s Alison Kuznitz on politics over the Mass.-N.H. border, and Enterprise Editor Alana Melanson.