Mayor recognizes standout residents

 

Mayor James Fiorentini recognized three Haverhill residents for their volunteerism and commitment to the city at this year's Independence Day fireworks celebration at the stadium.

Elaine Barker was recognized as an Outstanding Ambassador for always portraying Haverhill in a positive light and highlighting all that is great about the city. In addition to her considerable efforts on behalf of charitable and civic organizations in the city, Barker recently attended a Boston Red Sox baseball game in London, where she was spotted holding signs promoting “Haverhill MA U.S.A.”

Alison Colby Campbell also received the mayor’s Outstanding Ambassador Award for her work promoting the city and its people through her Heartbeat of Haverhill newsletter and social media presence.

Jesus Ruiz was recognized as the mayor’s Volunteer of the Year for his service to Haverhill’s youth as leader of Leaving the Streets Ministry, which is based at Common Ground Ministries on Winter Street.

— Mike LaBella

 

Rocks Village Bridge closed after accident

The Rocks Village Bridge over the Merrimack River, linking West Newbury and Haverhill, was closed to all cars and marine traffic recently after a truck carrying a large roll-off container struck the bridge, dropping the container onto the road.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation said in an advisory the afternoon of July 5 that the truck and container were being removed from the bridge, and crews were inspecting the structure to determine the damage and figure out when it can be reopened.

Police set up a detour and MassDOT encouraged travelers to find alternate routes. Signs were set up to tell drivers about the bridge closure.

For more information on traffic conditions, travelers can call 511 and select a route to hear real-time conditions, or visit www.mass511.com. Travelers can also follow MassDOT on Twitter @MassDOT or download MassDOT's GoTime mobile app for real-time traffic conditions.

— Jack Shea

 

State sees surge in requests to seal criminal records

A new law making it easier for people to seal their criminal records has prompted a surge of requests, overwhelming state officials.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation overhauling criminal justice laws that, among other changes, shortened the waiting period for individuals found guilty of misdemeanor offenses to ask that a case be sealed from five years to three, and from 10 years to seven for felonies convictions.

The new law also allows for the sealing of juvenile criminal records and expanded the list of offenses that qualify for sealing.

Those changes have prompted a surge in requests, which Baker administration officials tout as evidence of the law's effectiveness.

Since October, when the changes went into effect, the Office of the Commissioner of Probation has received 4,283 petitions from individuals to seal adult and juvenile criminal records -- averaging more than 500 requests a month -- and another 1,737 court orders to seal records, according to data obtained through a public records request.

Likewise the number of charges being sealed has skyrocketed. More than 42,000 individual charges have been sealed in the past six months, or about 7,000 a month, the data show.

By comparison, the probation office sealed a total of 8,400 offenses last year.

"We've been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of petitions but even more so the number of charges requested to be sealed," said Sean Casey, who oversees the office’s criminal records division.

Despite the increased workload, Casey said the office is processing petitions within two weeks of receiving the requests.

The state's Probation Service Department, which fields the requests, doesn't keep tabs on which offenses are involved in sealed cases. Major convictions -- such as murder, felony assault, drunken driving, domestic battery rape, and other sexual offenses — cannot be sealed.

Massachusetts is known for being particularly unforgiving when it comes to allowing people to get out from under the shadow of a conviction. Criminal records can haunt people long past their punishments, criminal justice advocates say, preventing them from getting jobs or housing, or from getting into college.

The overhaul approved by the Legislature and Baker last year was meant to help people get on with their lives by making it easier to wipe prior records clean.

The new law also allows juvenile records and some adult crimes to be permanently removed from a person’s criminal record through a process known as expungement. Unlike sealing a criminal record, which can still be viewed by law enforcement, expungement permanently erases charges from someone's official record.

But, records show, more than 80% of petitions for expungement submitted as of May were rejected, according to state data.

The probation office has received 260 expungement requests since January, but only 32 were ultimately accepted, and some of those were approved through the court system.

Advocates for criminal defendants say the expungement law is of limited use because people with juvenile records can only get one charge wiped clean. The advocates ay there are still too many charges that don't qualify.

Lawmakers have made several attempts to amend the expungement law, but it remains unclear if those bills will be taken up by legislative leaders.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, says the large number of rejections shows the law's shortcomings.

"This is more evidence the expungement provisions for juveniles and offenses that occurred before age 21 need overhauling," she said. "The success rate is abysmal."

— Christian M. Wade

 

Mom cites tragedy in push for day care law

When Marquita Kelley went to go pick up her 10-week-old son, Elijah, from her church day care one evening in April 2017, she found a staff member changing the diaper of her unconscious baby.

Marquita Kelley, whose 10-week-old son died after he was left alone sleeping on his stomach at a day care center, has asked the state Education Committee to approve a Rep. Carolyn Dykema bill that would impose health and safety standards on child care facilities that are exempt from state licensing requirements.

A staff member at the facility, Kelley said, had placed Elijah on his stomach to sleep and left him alone in a room.

Elijah was pronounced dead later that night. Kelley said he is believed to have died from sudden infant death syndrome, but that the cause of death was uncertain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, placing a baby to sleep on his or her back is the "single most effective action that parents and caregivers can take to lower a baby's risk of SIDS."

Kelley said she later found out most of the day care's workers were not trained in sleep safety and that the center was exempt from state licensure requirements.

She said she often asks herself, "if Elijah's death could have been prevented if the center had been subject to the regulations and inspections" that other, licensed day cares in Massachusetts face.

"All of our children should be protected equally," Kelley told the Education Committee. "I'm just pleading that this doesn't happen to more children."

Kelley asked the committee to endorse a bill filed by Dykema and Rep. Hannah Kane that would impose health and safety standards for license-exempt private child care programs.

The standards in the proposed bill include "the most basic training" for staff, a maximum number of infants that can be cared for, and staff-to-student ratios.

A Holliston Democrat, Dykema said she filed the bill (H 442) with Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican, to close what they saw as a loophole in the licensing standards. Dykema said they were inspired to act after hearing Kelley tell "a story that no mother should ever have to tell."

Under Department of Early Education and Care policy, a child care program can be exempt from licensing requirements for a handful of reasons, including if it does not operate on a regular basis, if it is a private organized educational system whose services are not primarily limited to kindergarten, nursery or pre-school services, or if it is providing care for children for short periods while parents or guardians attend religious services.

"When you bring your young child to a child care facility in Massachusetts, there is a certain expectation that you're bringing your child to a safe place, a place which is held to certain minimum quality standards," Dykema said.

After Dykema and Kelley testified, Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chair of the Education Committee, said she knew Dykema and Kane had had "several" meetings with former Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber as they developed legislation to address their concerns.

Peisch told Kelley she appreciated her willingness to speak about an "extraordinarily difficult" experience and said she wanted to assure her that "we will do whatever we can to see that something as tragic as this is not repeated."

— Katie Lannan, State House News Service

 

State to double fees for cremation reviews

Scattering the ashes of a deceased family member in Massachusetts will soon cost more with the state set to double the required fee for cremation reviews.

The state medical examiner’s office plans to increase the fee for “viewing” a body prior to cremation from $100 to $200. The office says the fee hasn’t increased in 10 years.

A spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said the increase is needed to cover operational costs of the cremation review process, including the hiring of additional pathology staff, the opening of new state inspection facilities, expanded office hours and a new online portal to communicate with funeral directors.

The examiner’s office is required by law to “view” and verify the identity of the deceased before a body is cremated and the ashes scattered at sea or or stored in an urn. More than 30,000 pre-cremation reviews are performed every year in Massachusetts, according to the office.

Funeral directors say a higher fee will hurt low-income families who often choose cremation as a less costly option than traditional casket-in-the-ground burials.

“This will be a burden for a lot of families,” said C.R. Lyons III of Lyons & Sons Funeral Directors in Danvers and president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association. “Unfortunately, the Medical Examiner’s Office has been grossly underfunded over the years.”

Spending on the office has doubled to more than $21 million in the past eight years, according to state data. Still, Lyons blames the Legislature for not adequately funding it, forcing the medical examiner to raise fees “to reconcile the fact that they haven’t had a reasonable budget increase.”

Besides covering the cost of pre-cremation viewings, the agency said it is opening a new facility in Westfield and expanding operating hours at other facilities. It will hold a public hearing on the proposal on July 19 to explain the fee increases, which don’t require legislative approval.

The new fee is expected to go into effect in August.

— Christian M. Wade

 

Rip current warnings, stop signs posted at beach

Department of Public Works officials have installed 10 stop signs along streets and rip current signs on Seabrook Beach to curb speeding and educate swimmers about potential dangers.

In March, selectmen voted to place 10 new stop signs at three intersections in residential neighborhoods near the beach during a yearlong trial. The Seabrook Beach Village District has been debating for several months how to deal with speeders who drive through residential areas along the beach.

Two stop signs were placed at Atlantic North on Methuen and Tyngsboro streets for northbound traffic; two on Ocean Drive and Tilton Street for traffic heading north and south; and six stop signs were erected on Portsmouth Avenue and Concord, Bristol and Plymouth streets for traffic traveling north and south.

In August, town officials will assess their findings and determine if the signs should remain on a permanent or seasonal basis.

Acting Police Chief Brett Walker offered his input, however, there was no issue specifically identified by police. Although DPW employees installed the signs over two week ago, Walker said there are still people who don’t realize the new signs are up.

“We’ve had officers down there addressing it,” Walker said. “It’s more of an educational thing at this point, to have police make drivers aware that they’re there. It’s tough because we have people that are still running them because they don’t know” the new signs are there.

Fire Chief Bill Edwards said he’s unsure how the stop signs will work and speculated it will take some time for visitors to get used to them.

“I’m afraid the people that pop up for a day trip from out of town or out of state may not realize they are there, either,” Edwards said. “It’s a congested area at times and with the Police Department being short-staffed, this may be the best way to slow traffic.”

Town Manager Bill Manzi said it’s too early to tell if the stop signs are working, but he would be “willing to guess some people have opinions for better or for worse.”

In addition, new rip current safety and warning signs were donated to the town by the Seabrook Beach Village District, which paid for the signs, printing and installation out of its own budget.

The intent of the signs, placed at every beach entrance, is to prevent accidents when swimmers get caught in rip currents, including one that took the lives of a Methuen couple last summer.

The fire chief said the rip current signs are positive, but he doesn’t think they will be any more of a help than the previous signs that told beachgoers to “swim at your own risk.”

Without someone out there, such as a lifeguard, Edwards said people will likely take risks without knowing or realizing how dangerous the surf is on a given day.

“I, unfortunately, think people are so used to going to beaches like ours and having lifeguards or fire department personnel on the sand ready to respond that they have a complacency about them,” Edwards said. “We are one of the few beaches along our coastline without some sort of water safety program, either through a lifeguard program or through the local fire department.”

Despite this, Edwards said he hopes beachgoers will see the signs and remember that the water can be dangerous.

To view a swim safety video sponsored by the Seabrook Police and Recreation departments, visit https://seabrooknh.info/2019/05/swim-safety-seminar-video/.

— Amanda Getchell

 

Plan aims to boost businesses struggling after gas disaster

Officials huddled outside Rose & Dove Gift Shop last week to detail a new regional marketing campaign that will boost small businesses still struggling from the Sept. 13 gas disaster. They also provided an update on business recovery efforts.

The campaign, called Rock the Register, is aimed at helping local businesses get attention and bringing customers back to local shops. Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the initiative is funded through $10 million from Columbia Gas for economic development in the three impacted communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

The campaign offers a number of incentives and sweepstakes to get people out shopping, and also encourages patrons to spread the word on social media. According to their website, each week, one person in each community will be awarded $500 to shop local.

"People always ask 'Is it over? Is everything fixed?'" Rivera said. "And I always tell people I'm not sure it'll be over until some of the last scars in the streets are fixed, but more importantly, until people feel they have been made whole, and we are far from that today. Hopefully this effort makes them feel a little more whole."

Rivera said the plan will help improve foot traffic and bring more attention to small businesses.

"No longer are we focused just on recovery, but on efforts that will promote our local and regional business community," said Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan.

He said the campaign is consistent with the efforts to build stronger, more vibrant communities following the disaster.

"The efforts today show the power of collaboration in the Merrimack Valley, and illustrates the collective capabilities of our partners across the region," Flanagan said. "We now focus on celebrating our businesses in the Merrimack Valley."

About 70% of the 900 small businesses impacted by the disaster have returned to the state they were in prior to the explosions, officials said. Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, said the other 30% say they are not yet whole because their customers have not returned.

"We always understood this to be a multi-year process," Mitchell said. "We are now 10 months in and we think we've reached a threshold, but we also recognize we need to double-down and continue to work moving forward."

Rose & Dove Gift Shop was a local business that closed for days following the explosions, operated without heat for months, and had its entrance blocked for weeks due to restoration work, said owner Kellee Twadelle, who started her business 14 years ago.

Outside her shop, she spoke of the difficulties small business owners endured over the past year.

"Although we were only closed for three days, the repercussions of that crisis continue today, 10 months later," Twadelle said. "For so many residents in Andover, Lawrence and here in North Andover, when you can't even take a shower at home, or drop your kids off to day care, the last thing people are thinking about is shopping locally... We are not easily defeated. We were knocked down, but we're not out."

Rivera said the claims process remains the biggest obstacle for impacted businesses.

"To get 100% what they asked for from Columbia Gas, they're not getting that," he said. "They're getting less than 100% because the claims process isn't really set up to be advantageous to small businesses, or frankly to anyone, because they're looking to make the least amount of payouts as possible."

For some small business owners like Maria Lopez, owner of Curiosity in Lawrence, she said it feels like things aren't going to return to normal any time in the near future.

"We thought at this time everything was going to be back to its role," Lopez said after the press conference. "And it doesn't look like it's going to be soon, either. ... This is going to have a repercussion for (longer) than we thought."

She fears the traffic caused from restoration work is going to steer customers away from her store on South Broadway, and into cities like Methuen, or towns in New Hampshire to shop.

 

— Jessica Valeriani

 

Company settles with family of man killed in gas explosions

The family of Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old man killed in the Sept. 13 Merrimack Valley gas explosions, has settled its legal claims with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the company announced in a press release last week.

The settlement is the result of voluntary mediation between the parties. The amount of the settlement is confidential, per the terms of the agreement, according to the statement.

Rondon attended the Phoenix Academy Charter School in Lawrence at the time of his death. He had just gotten his driver's license hours before the accident that killed him.

“Leonel tragically lost his life when a chimney from a nearby house fell onto a car. He was only 18 years old and full of life. He loved science and had a passion for music. He dreamt of going to college and cared for his family members in every way possible. His mother, Rosaly, described Leonel as ‘the happiness of the house.’ The family can only hope that this kind of catastrophe will never happen again. Nothing can replace the loss of Leonel and the Rondons will continue to cherish his memory, his loving support and positive impact on his family and community. Sheff Law will establish a scholarship fund designed to encourage an ongoing interest in public safety and community service," said Doug Sheff, Rondon family attorney.

“We remain heartbroken over the tragic loss of Leonel Rondon and again express our deepest sympathy to his family and to the entire community,” said Joe Hamrock, CEO and President of NiSource Inc., the parent company of Columbia Gas.

“We recognize the pain that remains and understand that nothing we can ever say or do will bring Leonel back to his loved ones or erase that pain. Since this tragic event, we have always wanted to do the right thing for the Rondon family and all of those affected, and we are pleased to have reached this settlement. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with the Rondon family to honor Leonel through a scholarship fund, and we will continue to honor his memory.”

Columbia Gas will also set up a scholarship fund in Rondon’s name, independent of the settlement. The company said it will work with the family to create the scholarship.

— Jill Harmacinski

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