Local Politics Lead Storylines in Leominster
LEOMINSTER -- New developments for long-standing political rivalries, municipal projects, and the lives of local figures were the biggest stories in Leominster this year, with some new issues also taking center stage.
UMASS Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital came under fire several times this year, most notably with the announced closures of several treatment services. Hospital administrators explained that the decision to close an inpatient pediatric unit and rehabilitation units for cardiac and pulmonary patients in Leominster, as well as an urgent care center in Fitchburg, was necessitated by waning patient volume, however the closures sparked public outcry from local officials and community members, who claimed the services were essential to community health.
The hospital again made headlines when a comprehensive audit by the Office of the Inspector General revealed the hospital had overcharged Medicare by $1.5 million between 2011 and 2017, and would have to pay back that amount plus an $800,000 fine.
While all that was happening, the expansion of the hospital’s emergency room continued.
What started as a seemingly easy rezoning petition quickly evolved into a political confrontation when Mayor Dean Mazzarella asked City councilors to allow commercial development on several Mechanic Street parcels he owns.
The mayor explained that the site would become the new home of his flagpole business, however councilors balked at the request when neighboring residents spoke out against the project, citing traffic concerns.
Mazzarella accused At-large Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir of organizing the public opposition, going as far to allude to the possibility of trying to appeal the council’s decision in federal court.
Finding a new home for the Leominster Police Department has become one of the longest-running issue of local politics, but the project took a major step forward when the city acquired the land to build a new police station in 2018.
The city spent $1.6 million on roughly two acres on Central Street in October with Mayor Mazzarella telling councilors that he hoped construction would begin in 2019.
The milestone came after more than 20 years of hearings, forums, and discussions on where to move the department.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Leominster Public Schools was largely able to stay out of the news in terms of controversy this year, thanks in part to its biggest news story: the arrival of Superintendent Paula Deacon.
A former principal at Fall Brook Elementary, Deacon took over leadership of the district on a permanent basis in 2018 following the early departure of former superintendent Jim Jolicoeur, whose exit came after dozens of teachers’ union members publicly demanded his resignation for allegedly mishandling the budget.
Deacon entered the district after a year of layoffs and a student march on city hall, but ended her first year with glowing performance reviews from members of the School Committee.
2018 also marked the first time in 24 years that the Leominster School Committee had a new leader. Mayor Dean Mazzarella officially stepped down from the position of chairman, with Ward 5 committee member Eileen Griffin taking over as chairwoman.
THE LOSS OF A LEADER
Among the city’s most notable deaths in 2018 was the passing of mayoral candidate John Roberge, who first came to public prominence in 2009 when his son died while serving in Iraq.
Roberge led a campaign to build the Johnny Ro Veterans Memorial Park in honor of his son, 22-year-old Army Pfc. Jonathan Roberge, and later an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Mayor Mazzarella in 2015.
After being diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, Roberge succumbed to the illness in October, passing away at the age of 56.
If the 2017 mayoral election that almost saw incumbent Dean Mazzarella unseated by write-in candidate Kenny Ricker wasn’t enough, the ensuing investigation by the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office gave residents plenty to talk about.
The narrow margin between the two candidates’ vote totals triggered a recount, but the election night practices of the city clerk’s office prompted an investigation by state officials to see if election laws or regulations had been violated.
Though state officials repeatedly said the investigation could not change the election’s outcome, it did uncover the fact that city employees and volunteers had mishandled ballots on election night.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
It was a good year for economic development in the Plastic City as several ongoing projects reached major milestones in rejuvenating vacant of blighted parts of Leominster.
Roughly six years after a massive fire destroyed the former downtown anchor that was the Columbia Building, the new Main Street branch of Enterprise Bank rose from the ashes. After a quick construction at the site of the fire, the bank opened for business in June.
Though it won’t be completed until sometime in 2019, the renovation of the former Carter Junior High School finally got under way in 2018 after several years of planning. Shuttered for more than 20 years, the school was purchased by NewVue Communities, which is now converting the building into 39 units of housing.
The year concluded with the grand opening of Reliant Medical Group’s new 68,000-square-foot office, which consolidated its pre-existing Leominster and Fitchburg locations into a larger facility on New Lancaster Road. The site promises to expand health services for patients and it also filled what had previously been a vacant lot.