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2 City Councilors Resign from CTI Board in Wake of Racism Vote

by Elizabeth Dobbins Lowell Sun

Newly elected and sworn In Lowell City Councilors L-R, front row, Rodney M. Elliott, Rita M. Mercier(Vice Mayor), John J. Leahy (Mayor), John Drinkwater, back row, Daniel P. Rourke, Sokhary Chau, David J. Conway, Vesna Nuon and William Bill Samaras. SUN/ David H. Brow

LOWELL — Veteran City Councilors Rodney Elliott and Rita Mercier said they would step down from Community Teamwork Inc.’s board of directors after voting against a motion to declare racism a public health crisis in Lowell — a declaration CTI vocally supported.

“I thought it would be better if I resigned and I could not be an effective board member,” Elliott said.

CTI Chief Executive Officer Karen Frederick said she intends to reach out to the councilors and speak to them directly.

“I am grateful for the time they’ve been on the board and I respect their decision,” she said.

She said she has not yet received their official letters of resignation. CTI is a prominent Lowell non-profit, which “mobilize(s) resources for low-income people, providing opportunities for them to achieve stability, self-sufficiency and have an active voice and participation in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Elliott said he has been on the board for eight years. Mercier has been on the board 14 years.

CTI issued a statement in support of a letter drafted by Merrimack Valley Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which called for the declaration of racism as a public health crisis among other reforms.

“These declarations are an important first step in the movement to advance racial equity and justice and must be followed by allocation of resources and strategic action,” read a statement emailed out by the organization. “For these reasons Community Teamwork is in support of the efforts of the Merrimack Valley and Lowell Diversity Equity and Inclusion Consortium and is urging the city of Lowell to also take this first step and declare racism as a public health crisis.”

Mercier and Elliott instead supported a resolution regarding racism that stopped short of labeling it as a public health crisis, during a contentious City Council meeting Tuesday night. A sentence on the CTI website said this alternate motion “commits to no actual change in business as usual.”

Elliott said calling for a declaration of racism as a public health crisis in the city exposes Lowell to a “potential liability.”

At the meeting on Tuesday night, City Solicitor Christine O’Connor said a specific finding by the City Council on a declaration of racism as a public health crisis could have an “adverse impact” for future lawsuits against the city. Framing the motion as a response to a larger, national issue would avoid this issue, she said.

Elliott also took issue with an email sent by Carl Howell, which called the resolution Elliott supported “dismissive, tone deaf and non-committal” and urged the council to be on the “right side of history.”

While Howell is an employee of CTI — the division director of housing & homeless services — he sent the email as an individual.

Elliott said he felt calling his resolution “tone deaf” was a personal criticism.

“I feel I am on the right side (of history). … I’ve listened to people for 23 years as a city councilor,” he said.

Mercier also took issue with Howell’s email.

“People shouldn’t have taken this personal and yet they did,” she said.

She said she does not like to be disrespected and she is not a racist.

“You can call me any name you want, Elizabeth,” Mercier said, referring to the Sun reporter she was addressing. “Don’t call me a racist and that’s what that man was implying.”

Howell did not respond to two emails seeking comment.

Prior to the vote, CTI posted on social media a notice reminding residents of the vote. Part of the notice read, “There is an alternate motion that commits to no actual change in business as usual.”

That was Elliot’s motion and he took offense to it.

Elliott said he believes CTI helps many people in need and wishes the organization well.

Mercier and Elliott were appointed to the CTI board of directors by Mayor John Leahy earlier this year, though Frederick said this was an oversight and is not how people are appointed to the board anymore. The two councilors’ appointments continued from previous years.

Frederick said the board meets again in September and is expected to select another councilor, or councilor’s representative, and community member to fill the spots.

She said CTI plans to continue to work with the city.

“We are good partners,” she said. “We differed on an issue. I think that’s just the world.”

Leahy said the resignations during the City Council meeting came off as “foolish” and he believes the councilors could have waited until the next day.

“If you’re in politics, we take the criticism along with the praise,” he said.

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