April 28. 2013 12:18AM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Charter official says commission's report is 'not valid'

New Hampshire Union Leader

Make the school district a city department! Eliminate the tax cap! Remove the mayor from the school board! The Charter Commission started out with some pretty big ideas, but in the end it produced nine fairly modest proposals - and plenty of recriminations.

The commission held its final working meeting Wednesday, approving a preliminary report that includes proposals to up the mayor's pay to $100,000 (from $68,000, where it's stood since the last century), while eliminating the health care benefits for aldermen and school board members. The same motion would also increase their stipends to $9,000 and $7,000, respectively.

These are significant changes and things that the public has clamored for, at least in the case of axing the health care benefits, as commission Chairman Jerome Duval noted.

"We have a number of items that will be put forth to voters that will bring Manchester's form of government up to date in order to make us competitive during these times," he said.

It's safe to say one person who doesn't share this view is the commission's vice chairman, Rich Girard, who was a leader of the panel's conservative minority.

"A colossal waste of time" is how he referred to it on his show on Manchester Public Television last week.

Early on in the process, a quiet tension emerged between Girard and Duval that went beyond their political differences (Duval is a Democrat, Girard a Republican). Duval took a casual if diplomatic approach to running the meetings while Girard was a stickler for protocol.

These differences came to a head at the final meeting, which was notable for its brevity. The preliminary report, the document listing the proposed charter revisions to be sent to state officials, was duly signed by all nine commissioners. Duval called for a vote, and Commissioner Skip Ashooh offered a motion "to make it unanimous that we support all of the elements that we've proposed." Past commissions have proposed similar motions as a way to provide a seal of bipartisan consensus.

The motion was passed, and the panel quickly turned to thank you's and back-patting.

But Girard said he was caught off guard by the abrupt ending. He expected he would at least have a chance to say his piece about the process and perhaps express his disappointment that many of his initiatives - a return to partisan elections, making the school district a city department - had been thwarted.

He suspected that something about the way the meeting concluded wasn't right, and after reviewing the tape, he observed that a motion to approve the preliminary report was never made or debated; rather the motion was only to make the acceptance of the report unanimous.

And so, as Girard concluded in a letter to city officials and signed by fellow Commissioners Will Infantine and Nick Pappas, the report is "not valid." And because Wednesday was the commission's final day to approve the report under state statute, Girard continued, it's too late to do anything about it.

What's more, Girard said, he believes Duval "engineered" the unanimous motion for the purpose of cutting off debate at the final meeting.

So, would Girard prefer no charter ballot to one that might have been accompanied by a technical hiccup or two?

"It doesn't matter what I'd rather have, it's what the law allows," Girard said. "This is unfortunately the result of a poor process, poor presentation, and one that didn't pay attention to the details."

Duval said Girard was entitled to his opinion. As far as he was concerned, the document is now being vetted by state officials and will eventually go before voters.

"Rich is a very capable guy, and he has strong set of ideas. The majority didn't happen to agree with him," he said. "We were all elected by the same voters. I think each commissioner dedicated themselves to the process."

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Other than the Charter Commission action, it was a slow week at City Hall. It was school vacation, and both the aldermen and school board had the good sense to take it off.

A good time for upstart mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold to issue a provocative news release, a trademark of his.

The Ward 12 alderman seized on an appearance Mayor Ted Gatsas made on WMUR last weekend. Predictably, Gatsas, often mentioned as a contender for governor, was pressed on his future political ambitions. As he seeks reelection as mayor, would he rule out running for another office?

"The only thing I'm ruling out is not going to Aruba on vacation," Arnold quotes the mayor as saying.

"Mayor Gatsas Puts Ambition, Aruba Ahead of Manchester," was Arnold's news-release headline.

Gatsas doesn't go for political put-downs and had "no comment" on Arnold's release.

But our colleague, John DiStaso, beat the TV station to the mayor for his Granite Status column and got a meatier answer than "Aruba.''

"At this point I'm running for mayor, and I would never eliminate anything in the future," he told DiStaso.

Does he intend to serve a full term?

"I'm running for mayor, and if there are any other situations that came before me, I would look at them. I would never rule anything out at this time," he said. "That could be anything that comes forward."

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If all goes well, a fixture at City Hall who has been missing - and missed - the past several weeks will soon return: City Clerk Matt Normand, recuperating from back surgery.

Hopefully, he's been catching the meetings on local cable - and experiencing the joy of changing the channel when he feels like it, or at least hitting the mute button.

Deputy City Clerk Heather Freeman has been manning the fort while Normand has been out, and she says that he's eager to get back to work, which could be as soon as Wednesday.

Here's wishing him a speedy recovery.

Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.