School bus company changing ownership

With the start of school just weeks away, the Coppola Bus company is finalizing the transfer of ownership to NRT Bus Inc., a North Reading-based company that provides school busing services to many area communities, including Haverhill, where it already provides transportation for students with special needs.

The two companies have received approval from the School Committee to make the transition.

Nelson Blinn, 74, a local accountant who bought half of Coppola Bus in 1984 then the other half in 2004, said it's time to pass his company on. He said he has known John McCarthy, who founded NRT in 1988, for many years.

"John is very sensitive, as I am, about the safety of children," Blinn said. "All the years I've been in this business, I've considered every child I transport as my own."

Blinn said he agreed to serve as a consultant to NRT for three years.

"I'll probably still drop by every morning before heading to my office on Bailey Boulevard," he said.

McCarthy, president and owner of NRT, said his company has been in Haverhill for eight years serving the transportation needs of Haverhill public school students with special needs. The company also provides summer transportation for the School Department.

"You'll just see more of us," he said. "Technically, this is an acquisition of Coppola Bus, as we're buying the property (bus depot) in Bradford, as well as 40 buses."

McCarthy said he plans to retain Coppola's 32 drivers. Trained school bus drivers are hard to come by these days, he said.

"Right now our focus is to ensure a smooth transition of ownership of the vehicles and to make sure children get to school safely and on time," McCarthy said. "We want to make sure every licensed driver has the opportunity to continue those routes, as it takes a lot to train a school bus driver."

Blinn said his trainers are also school bus drivers who have morning and afternoon routes, while McCarthy said he has full-time trainers.

"We have our own training facility and last year we trained 800 drivers, as I also own other school bus companies, including Trombly Motor Coach and SP&R Transportation," McCarthy said.

NRT's corporate office is located in North Reading. The company has terminals (bus depots) in Methuen, Lowell, Lynn, North Reading, Hudson, Newbury and North Andover.

McCarthy said his company operates about 2,100 vehicles in about 35 communities, including Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and Haverhill.

"We are a fairly large company but we still run it like a mom and pop company," he said. "We continue to run it like the first day I started it and I'm involved on a daily basis."

Blinn said Coppola Bus was started by Frank Coppola in 1936 and that Coppola passed it on his sons, Frank and John.

Blinn bought half the company from Frank in 1984, and the other half from John in 2004.

Blinn said it's been very difficult to find bus drivers, which prompted him to offer signup bonuses — first of $5,000 then of $7,500. The perk resulted in just one new driver.

"It's difficult to get a license as it requires a written exam, a CORI check and a physical even before they can be trained, and the training hours were upped from 40 to 60 hours," he said. "The road test is more involved as well, although it's all done to ensure the safety of children."

He said his drivers typically work 20 to 25 hours a week, although some take on additional duties, such as after-school and weekend sports transportation.

"It's not a bad job for a mother, as we have special seats on the bus for a driver's child," he said. "We've been doing everything possible to recruit new drivers and this is not just a Haverhill problem, it's a national problem."

— Mike LaBella

 

Police say teen is shooting victim

Police said a 17-year old girl from Seabrook, New Hampshire, was injured in a shooting that took place on July 21 around 9:53 p.m. near 163 Grove St.

Police Capt. Stephen Doherty said the victim was taken to a Boston area hospital, where she was listed in stable condition as of late last week.

"We are investigating multiple motives for the shooting, which does not appear to be random, although the victim does not appear to be the intended target," Doherty said. "Numerous shots were fired, a vehicle was struck, and she was a passenger in the vehicle."

The investigation into the shooting is being conducted by Haverhill police with the assistance of state police, Doherty said.

Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to contact Detective Kyle McCann at 978-373-1212, ext. 1578. You can also leave a message on the anonymous tip line by following the prompts.

— Mike LaBella

 

Neighbors angry with group home management, tire slashing

Residents of the Westland Terrace neighborhood say they've been living peacefully near a group home run by the nonprofit Vinfen company, but were shaken up by an incident that occurred on the morning of July 5.

The residents say the incident put them and the children in the neighborhood at risk. They have asked the City Council for help.

At last week's council meeting, police Capt. Robert Pistone explained that more than 12 vehicles had their tires slashed in the Westland Terrace neighborhood, and that potted plants and mail boxes were tipped over.

Pistone said that later the day when the damage was discovered, police arrested a resident of the group home, which Pistone said is located at 20 Westland Terrace.

"Unfortunately, he had a mental health crisis ... he had heard voices and he went out with a knife and entered various yards," Pistone said. "Understandably, residents were concerned and had some valid concerns ... how they can be assured of keeping their children and their families and property safe."

Residents wanted answers as to what Vinfen will do to prevent another similar occurrence.

Vinfen Chief Operating Officer Sophie Jones told the council that the group home houses eight people who live there independently, and that Vinfen is their service provider and their landlord.

She said Vinfen works for and with the state Department of Mental Health.

Jones, responding to questions by councilors as to how the home is staffed, said there are no on-site staff, but that staff visits residents two or three time per month, but not always on the property.

Councilor Thomas Sullivan wanted answers as to what Vinfen can do to better connect with the neighborhood, including the Gale Park neighborhood association.

"There's a disconnect," Sullivan said. "If this was my neighborhood, I'd very much want to be involved and know how that house runs and who is in it."

Jones said her clients have a right to privacy and it would be up to them as to whether they want to participate in neighborhood events.

Jones avoided a question posed by Councilor Melinda Barrett as to whether Vinfen is responsible for the damages caused by the resident, saying it was an act of vandalism and there is a criminal process that must still play out. She said the state Department of Mental Health places the residents in the group home.

Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua empathized with Jones' clients, but he also has empathy for the neighbors.

"They have a right and an expectation to be safe in their own neighborhoods," he said.

Bevilacqua said that in light of the July 5 incident, a staff member should be on-site at all times. Other councilors also asked Jones to boost staffing, but her responses involved how group homes operate under a DMH model.

"When neighbors leave here tonight, I'm not sure they feel safer," Bevilacqua said, adding that he wanted the council to send a letter to state officials notifying them of the need for on-site staffing of the group home.

Residents of that neighborhood, which is located at the northern end of Mill Street, near Gale Park, had sent a letter to members of the council noting their concern with the July 5 incident, indicating the group home resident charged with the vandalism "acted aggressively toward a neighbor walking his dog."

"We have lived with this group home in harmony for many years," they noted in a letter signed by Saltonstall Road resident Daniel Robertson and six of his neighbors. "We have been patient with the incidents that have occurred in the past, but when our personal safety and the safety of our property is threatened, we lose our patience."

They noted that more than a dozen children under the age of 10 live close to Vinfen's property and regularly play outside and ride bikes.

"There was an outside possibility that this could have been more than property damage," Robertson told councilors. "We've been good neighbors from the beginning. Vinfen needs to be a better neighbor."

Pistone told the council that since 1999, police responded to the group home 213 times. Since the start of 2019, police have responded just 21 times, although he noted that all of the calls were medical in nature and involved residents with mental health issues.

Vinfen officials noted that they have been in charge of the group home since 2012.

Pistone said the July 5 incident was the first violent incident involving a resident of the group home over the past three years.

"It's very scary," Councilor Tim Jordan said, "the thought of someone going down the street with a knife, slashing tires."

Robertson told the council there was a "parade" of flatbed trucks in his neighborhood following the tire slashing incident, which damaged three of his family's vehicles.

The council voted to send letters to various state agencies, including the Department of Mental Health the Department of Developmental Services, as well as to the city's legislative delegation, outlining the council's concerns with how group homes operate in Haverhill.

Following the meeting, Westland Terrace resident Laura Wrisley said Jones had few answers for neighbors.

"The family of the resident who slashed the tires put him with Vinfen, which is being paid money to take care of him and make sure this doesn't happen," she said. "They let him down and they let his family down. And she (Jones) took no responsibility."

"I don't feel like we got anywhere," Robertson said, adding that he and his fellow neighbors were frustrated with the response by Jones. "She didn't even apologize to us."

— Mike LaBella

 

Columbia Gas to pay $143M to disaster victims

Ten months after the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster rocked the Merrimack Valley, killing one 18-year-old man from Lawrence and displacing thousands of others, lawyers have reached a $143 million agreement to compensate residents and businesses for the disruption that was caused in their lives.

A statement sent from a Columbia Gas spokesperson reported the proposed class-action settlement will give money to those who suffered hardships in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover after the sudden blasts and fires caused by overpressurized gas lines 10 months ago.

This settlement, which is subject to court approval, is separate from the money paid to the towns to cover infrastructure repairs and other expenses, the statement says, as well as from the individual claims involving personal injuries and wrongful death.

After its approval, residents and businesses will be able to submit claims, according to the statement.

John Roddy, an attorney from Bailey & Glasser, the firm representing the plaintiffs, said every impacted person is entitled to claim from the $143 million fund.

An allocation plan is being put in place to determine where the most damage was done in the three communities, Roddy said. The main goal of the settlement is that business owners who had their income streams most disturbed will get the largest measure of recovery.

"I think there are people whose claims may be very substantial, and there are others who are the furthest from the impacted zone who may not have very substantial claims," Roddy said. "They can submit a claim and will receive compensation no matter what."

Roddy said he hopes for a judge's approval to send a notice to everyone in the next couple weeks. From there, he said it normally takes 75 to 90 days from the time the notices go out to the time the court holds a final approval hearing.

If the settlement is determined fair and reasonable at the final approval hearing, Roddy said checks are estimated to go out within 35 to 40 days afterward, assuming no one appeals the decision and there are no delays.

"We feel that it's extremely fair," Roddy said of the money. "In a situation like this, I don't think it's ever possible to make someone 100% whole, but this is a step in the right direction."

“This settlement, reached in an unprecedented 10 months after the incident, will provide a full measure of compensation to thousands of residents and businesses in a transparent and expeditious manner, under rigorous judicial oversight," said plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel Frank Petosa of Morgan and Morgan.

The Columbia Gas-managed claims process, overseen by a court-supervised mediator, will continue until the court gives preliminary approval to the settlement.

Then an independent claims administrator will take over the process, the statement says.

“The claims process will be simple, straightforward and tailored to correspond to the event’s impact on the claimant,” said co-liaison counsel Brad Henry of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow.

Though the announcement leaves business owners hopeful, they are also left wondering how much money they will receive and if it will make up for the lost revenue they've endured.

Throughout the months that followed the gas disaster, businesses have filed claims, received new appliances, and opened their doors back up to customers. But as people and employees have started to slowly return to normalcy, one problem remains: Businesses are not getting clientele as they did before the disaster.

"I want to get my business back to normal, but it's just not," said John Ingalls, owner of Palmer's Restaurant in Andover.

Ingalls wasn't able to open his doors until nearly two months after the disaster. After the weeks crawled by and he finally propped open the door to welcome people back to tables and bar stools, he said business was booming.

But it didn't last.

"When we first got back and open it was great, but then it trickled off. There was great support in November and December, and we did very well. But since the beginning of the year it has been way off, and I think we are better than we've ever been. I mean that. We got better after it happened," Ingalls said.

As the spring and summer months arrived, the owner of the popular restaurant in the heart of downtown said a lot of once-loyal customers have not returned. And though he is back to operating his restaurant as he did prior to the disaster, there remains a big concern as business has been consistently off for the last four months.

Similar to Ingalls, Maria Lopez, owner of the South Broadway business Curiosity in Lawrence, said she learned of the $143 million settlement Monday morning when it was announced in the media.

"Nobody knows anything about it," she said, referring to other businesses in Lawrence that have been seeking assistance from both Columbia Gas and the city. "Nobody has any information about it."

Lopez said that prior to the gas disaster, she was earning $1,000 to $1,400 a week. Now, she says she is lucky if she makes $500 a month.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who has been the most vocal community leader in his feelings toward Columbia Gas, said a settlement like this is good for the utility company, because it gets to close out all of the claims in the lawsuit.

"The question is: After the attorneys take their cut, how much are residents and businesses really left with? My hope is that the people and businesses in these class-action lawsuits are truly being made whole and not being victimized yet again," Rivea said.

— Jessica Valeriani

 

Trahan calls for Trump impeachment proceedings

U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan has joined other members of the state's congressional delegation in calling for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Trahan, who had been reluctant to support a formal inquiry, said it was former special counsel Robert Mueller's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week, as well as mounting evidence that the Republican president may have broken the law, that changed her mind.

"This is not a decision I came to lightly," said Trahan, a Westford Democrat who also represents Haverhill. "As a staffer during the Clinton impeachment, I’ve seen firsthand how disruptive this process can be for our nation. But no president, including this one, is above the law."

Trahan said Mueller's testimony indicates "ample evidence that the president broke the law by repeatedly engaging in efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election."

"It is up to Congress to act to determine the truth," she added.

The freshman congresswoman's stance puts her at odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made clear she will not pursue impeachment, for now.

But Trahan has company in the state's 11-member, all-Democratic congressional delegation -- including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Reps. Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley — who have called for impeachment proceedings.

Moulton, who like Warren is running for president, makes the case that Congress can no longer ignore the president's efforts to obstruct investigations into potential wrongdoings.

"It's our constitutional duty to have this debate in the House of Representatives," he told reporters in a teleconference following Mueller's testimony. "It's not the right time for a vote on impeachment but we absolutely have to begin the proceedings."

Other members of the delegation — Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Stephen Lynch, Katherine Clark and Richard Neal — while all critical of the president's leadership, have stopped short of calling for impeachment.

Trahan and Clark were among those joined 95 other House Democrats who voted against a recent move to block a measure filed by Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas to initiate articles of impeachment against Trump. Green's impeachment proposal was ultimately defeated.

Pressure has increased on Democrats following Mueller's report in which he noted multiple White House efforts to obstruct investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

Last week, Mueller reiterated that charging Trump with a crime was "not an option" because of federal rules, but that his report did not exonerate the president.

Mueller described Russian government efforts to interfere in American politics as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career — which included steering the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

During a televised press conference Wednesday night of last week, Pelosi said Mueller's testimony provided "damaging evidence" but said she wasn't yet prepared to initiate impeachment proceedings.

"We want to have the strongest possible case to make a decision as to what path we are going down," the Democrat told reporters. "But if it comes to a point where the code of silence and obstruction of justice and the cover-ups in the White House prevents us from getting that information, that will not prevent us from going forward."

The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to remove presidents before their terms are finished if enough lawmakers vote to say that they committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Removal requires a simple majority vote in the House and a trial in the Senate, where two-thirds of the upper chamber would have to vote to convict.

So far, none of the state's congressional lawmakers have said they oppose impeachment.

Meanwhile, the state's Republican Party called on Trahan and other members of the congressional delegation to "apologize" to Trump following Mueller's testimony.

"These Democrats owe President Trump an apology, as today's hearings were a disaster for them," MassGOP chairman Jim Lyons said in a statement. "The collusion narrative has collapsed spectacularly, and these members of our Massachusetts congressional delegation are refusing to admit it."

— Christian M. Wade

 

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