Attorney General Maura Healey advocated for residents and small businesses in the Merrimack Valley on Monday during a tour of Lawrence, Haverhill and Methuen.
She was joined by local leaders, including Mayors Kendrys Vasquez, James Fiorentini and Neil Perry, and state Sens. Diana DiZoglio and Barry Finegold, among others.
In Lawrence, Healey praised the city's "collective spirit" and equitable community partnerships while visiting with residents during a vaccination clinic at South Lawrence East Elementary School as they received doses of the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
During her stop, Healey heard firsthand how Vasquez and other Lawrence leaders are meeting with residents to combat vaccine hesitancy.
Vasquez and city Health and Human Services Director Martha Velez explained to Healey how Lawrence created a first-of-its kind bilingual hotline to help residents book vaccine appointments and have their COVID-19 questions answered long before the state established its own hotline.
Healey was impressed how leaders from local agencies, Lawrence General Hospital and Vasquez's office came together hoping to reach the 65% of residents who have yet to be vaccinated. "Hearing from trusted validators is so important," the attorney general said.
Teamwork in reaching Lawrence residents is key, Velez said.
Also on Monday, Healey joined staff from the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council to warn of the danger of deceptive electrical suppliers. In doing so, Healey encouraged Merrimack Valley residents to take advantage of fuel assistance and other programs GLCAC offers by the May 28 application deadline before the July shutoff moratorium is lifted.
“Competitive energy suppliers say they’ll save you money and they're going door to door aggressively and getting people to switch to their companies. They're draining dollars away from our most vulnerable communities like Lawrence," Healey explained. "In the last five years, residents were cheated out of $400 million. We've been going after these companies one by one ... but I’m tired of this whack-a-mole approach.”
Grace Corporan of the Family and Youth Initiative conducted research on how the utility practices she calls a "scam" affect Merrimack Valley residents.
She told Healey the companies she researched tend to prey on Hispanic residents in Lawrence and Methuen. Corporan said representatives for these companies park on Essex Street in Lawrence and in the Walmart parking lot in Walmart in Methuen to target residents, telling them they will be entered into raffles if they change their service provider.
Employees who speak Spanish are most often used to "aggressively" target people, she said.
State Rep. Frank Moran filed a bill that would protect consumers from deceptive practices and fraudulent energy suppliers, Healey said.
"It’s time that we act on these predatory sales tactics," Moran said, urging residents to call Healey's office if they believe an energy supplier is taking advantage of them.
"These companies knowingly target vulnerable populations and these issues continue to be exacerbated in communities of color and cities like my own,” he said.
The attorney general headed to Haverhill late Monday afternoon, meeting with roughly 30 people at Krueger Flatbread after touring small businesses in the downtown district.
Jason Petrou, whose family owns the eatery that hosted Healey, DiZoglio, Fiorentini and several city councilors, said business owners expressed concern about bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic.
"We talked about business in our community (in Haverhill), but the overall feeling was that we've all made it through the hard part of the pandemic and the challenge now, no matter what the industry, is staffing," Petrou said.
He added that the group also discussed the Paycheck Protection Program and various loans small businesses are eligible for and that some in Haverhill received.
"Sen. DiZoglio and Attorney General Healey offered to support us in any way possible," he said.
The event was attended by the owners of restaurants that included Casa Blanca, La Pizza di Forno, The Peddler's Daughter, Carbone's Kitchen Stuf't and Wicked Big Cafe, along with representatives from Shoe City Hardware, Petrou said.
"As the host of the event, we're thankful our elected officials were able to bring Attorney General Healey to our city and hear our concerns moving forward," Petrou said.
Healey finished the day in Methuen, greeting students from the Methuen Youth Voice program at Methuen High School. She also received a tour of the site of the future Methuen Youth and Community Center on Pleasant Valley Street.
In October, the Methuen School Committee voted to approve the former Pleasant Valley School building as the location for the new center. Since then, DiZoglio has tirelessly advocated for the project, including going on a 160-mile March Across Massachusetts to raise awareness and support for the project.