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Politics to Opioids to Scandals, Top Local Stories Had Us Talking in 2018

January 6, 2019
JUST KEPT COMING: John Doherty, of Merrimack Property Management, shovels the walk outside the Central House apartments in Chelmsford Center on Jan. 4, 2018.

Sun staff report

From the halls of Congress to City Hall, residents of Greater Lowell filled 2018 with groundbreaking achievements, notable controversies and poignant remembrances. Here are the 10 most newsworthy stories we covered last year.

Wild race for 3rd District

It was always expected that U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas’ retirement would draw significant attention. It was not expected that the Democratic primary in that race would become one of the most crowded elections in state history, one with such notable highlights as Barbara L’Italien accepting a Fox News interview meant for someone else and using the appearance to criticize the president or a primary election night that ended without a clear winner. The gap between Lori Trahan and Dan Koh was so close that a recount was needed, but in the end, Trahan emerged as the Democratic nominee. Her victory in the general election came with a much larger margin and ensured that, as the trailblazing Tsongas departs and as a record class of women enters Congress, the 3rd Congressional District seat will continue to be held by a woman.

Chaos in Lowell’s schools

From staffing to heating to momentum on a new high school, Lowell’s School Department endured an eventful -- and rocky -- 2018. The biggest news came in the fall when, four months after they first took a vote on the topic, the School Committee formally fired Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui over, depending on whom you ask, either concerns about mismanagement or personal politics. Meanwhile, both an internal review and a third-party audit found the district in dire financial straits. And on top of that, while the process moves forward toward a new downtown Lowell High School, the existing school building continued to experience issues, including gas leaks and heating issues that left some classrooms frigid.

Chelmsford splits its tax rate

Debate was intense, but after 20 years, Chelmsford’s Board of Selectmen voted to split residential and commercial taxes into two separate rates. The move will grant a bit of breathing room to homeowners, who make up more than 80 percent of the town’s tax levy every year, but at a larger cost to businesses. Official projections put the average annual residential savings at $438 and the increase in average annual cost for businesses at $4,881. That disparity is what prompted such intense controversy, with business owners sharply criticizing the town and a narrow 3-2 Board of Selectmen vote to pass the measure.

Tyngsboro Country Club sold

For nearly three decades, Glenn and Tammy Garau had run the Tyngsboro Country Club. They decided last summer it was time to step away and reached an agreement to sell the 85-acre property for housing, but the actual process did not go that smoothly. Town officials had concerns about the property going toward development, and after a back-and-forth process, a fall Special Town Meeting approved borrowing money to facilitate Tyngsboro itself taking over the purchase by exercising its right of first refusal. What happens next is unclear. There remains a possibility that the development company, nationwide giant Toll Brothers, could use only a few acres of the land for a planned apartment development and allow the town to use the rest for open space, but for now, nothing is definite.

Donoghue becomes city manager

It took until 2018, but Lowell finally got its first-ever female city manager. Eileen Donoghue, once a city councilor, started the year as the state senator representing the Mill City -- and was even briefly in the running for Senate president -- but as soon as former City Manager Kevin Murphy announced his retirement would take effect April 1, her name popped up as a likely successor. Donoghue’s appointment is a crucial milestone for the city, one that comes in a year when women across the country sought public office in record numbers. Her decision also left the 1st Middlesex district without representation in the state Senate for more than half a year until Edward Kennedy Jr., currently a member of the City Council, won the race to fill her seat.

Dracut doctor charged in opioid case

Richard Miron, a 76-year-old retired doctor from Dracut, was indicted by a grand jury in December on allegations that he wrote illegal prescriptions that resulted in an at-risk patient’s death from a combination of opioids. He faces 23 counts of illegal prescribing controlled substances, 23 counts of filing false Medicaid claims, and one count of involuntary manslaughter. The case carries massive weight with it: Miron is the first doctor in Massachusetts history to face an involuntary manslaughter charge related to opioids, part of a newly aggressive strategy by authorities as they work to combat an epidemic.

A never-ending string of storms

You could be forgiven for thinking, right around mid-March or so, that it was simply never going to stop snowing. Three nor’easters battered the region in the span of 10 days right at the end of the season, dumping more snow before the last batch even had a chance to melt. There were the usual effects, of course: sloppy roads, huge snowdrifts and the occasional power outage. But area schools took a particularly strong beating because of the timing of the storms, and some had so many snow days they had to resort to unique strategies to make up the time.

Another sex scandal in Billerica

Billerica was rocked by its second public-safety sex scandal in two years, this time allegedly involving a police detective and a dispatcher. Unlike last year’s fire department issue, this one does not seem to have taken place in the office itself, but the effects were still felt. Both Detective Daniel O’Leary and dispatcher Kate Murphy were placed on leave in April after being warned the external relationship was affecting their work. Murphy voluntarily resigned on June 30, and was paid $30,000 in severance.

Rep. Jim Miceli dies while in office

Jim Miceli was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1977, and over the next four decades he held his seat representing Tewksbury and Wilmington. He died in April at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy of public service and a wide network of constituents who had been affected by him. At the time of his death, his term had another eight-plus months remaining, and the open seat drew significant attention. About 10 people expressed interest, and five formally made the Democratic primary ballot, including Wilmington Selectman Mike McCoy, who is Miceli’s nephew. Dave Robertson, a former legislative aide to Miceli, eventually topped the primary and the general election, signalling plans to carry on his former boss’s work.

Embezzlement cases head to court

Two of the year’s most significant crime stories involved the alleged theft of funds from public-oriented groups. In October, Lowell resident Amy Young was arraigned on charges alleging that she had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from LifeLinks Inc., a nonprofit that provides support to local children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Then, in November, former Tyngsboro assistant tax collector Nancy Dutton, a Dracut resident, pleaded guilty to stealing $492,000 from payments made by taxpayers.