This is the statement from Attorney Michael Gallagher on behalf of BOP member Mr. Finnegan.
Last Wednesday, Lowell Board of Parks (BOP) member, Peter Finnegan, attended a BOP meeting and took a vote, like he had done many times during his 18 years of unpaid service on that board. Unlike all previous meetings, though, that vote resulted in a call for an ethics investigation, a suggestion that he step down, and the need for the local police to come to his home responsive to threats upon his and his family’s well-being.
That vote related to the so-called “Cawley site” (Cawley) as a potential location for a new Lowell High School (LHS). It wasn’t Mr. Finnegan, however, who called for this meeting and vote; rather, the law required it. Article 97 of the Commonwealth’s Constitution, approved by MA voters in 1972, which authorized the Commonwealth to acquire conservation easements, and which was intended to be a legislative “check” to ensure that lands acquired for conservation purposes – such as Cawley – were not “converted” to other inconsistent uses, mandated that the City obtain, among other things, the unanimous vote of the BOP if it wished to convert Cawley to a new LHS.
Article 97 also requires that public spaces such as Cawley should not be converted absent “exceptional circumstances” and that those exceptional circumstances include, among other things, that “all” other options be explored and no “feasible and substantially equivalent” alternatives exist, and that real estate of “equal or greater value” be available to replace what was to be converted. Mr. Finnegan knew that the new LHS Cawley proposal involved the conversion of additional green spaces without adequate replacement and so he voted, “No.”
Importantly, Mr. Finnegan strongly felt that he was doing what he had been called upon to do as a member of the BOP whose mission is to protect public open spaces in Lowell. He didn’t sit on the School Building Committee which, together with its consultant, vetted the possible LHS sites, and based on the information provided, winnowed them down; and his job had not been to research the proposed sites to determine whether any came with any land use restrictions. Rather, his role was to fulfill his obligation to the citizens of Lowell as a member of the BOP, the sole protector of Lowell’s public green spaces. In voting as he did, he was following what he believed his obligation and the law to be.
It is of little comfort to Mr. Finnegan that any Ethics complaint would be wholly without merit (notably, on the morning of the vote, even though he was not required to do so, Mr. Finnegan resigned as the LHS JV Boys Lacrosse coach in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety) or that if a complaint were filed, the City should have to defend him, and as the City’s Law Department would be conflicted, the City should have to pay for his defense.
What’s most discomforting to Mr. Finnegan is the defamation being leveled at him and his family. He is a good and decent man who has given back a great deal to his community of Lowell, especially to its young people. For nearly two decades, he coached youth baseball, serving as his local field’s baseball Commissioner for six of those years. For five years, he was a Board Member (and then President) of what is now Greater Lowell Youth Hockey. In 1999, he founded Lowell Youth Lacrosse, serving as its President for the next decade. From 1999-2010, and then in 2016, he coached JV Boys Lacrosse at LHS. Since 1999, he has been a member of the BOP, serving as its Vice Chair since 2006 — at no point receiving any compensation.
People can of course reasonably and civilly disagree on what the optimal site should be for the new LHS, and many have done so. By his vote, though, Mr. Finnegan was not staking out a position on this issue (he wants what all Lowellians want in a new LHS and that is first-rate educational programming with state of the art technology in an attractive and functional facility, regardless of where it is ultimately sited). Rather, Mr. Finnegan’s vote was one that he felt he had to make pursuant to his responsibility as a BOP member and under the applicable law.
The City wants citizens to serve on its boards, and to take their responsibilities seriously. A board member’s job is to do what the board and the law expect and require him to do, not to simply blow with the political winds or bend to pressure or threats from some. Regardless of one’s position on the siting of the new LHS, then, Peter Finnegan should be respected as a first-rate example of an involved citizen and community member, and for taking a courageous, principled vote based on what he reasonably understood his board membership and the law required him to do.