April 12. 2014 9:12PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Mayor's surgery raises questions about running city hall

New Hampshire Union Leader

The good news is, Mayor Ted Gatsas is doing well following his unexpected heart bypass operation Tuesday. He could be released from Catholic Medical Center within days, his chief of staff, Sam Piatt, said Saturday.

Now to the other news: Some pointed questions are being raised about how the city is going to be run during what will likely be Gatsas' extended absence. After all, being mayor is not just attending meetings and ceremonies, but signing off on important matters on a daily basis.

For Piatt, the answer is fairly simple.

"Ted will be involved, he just won't have a public schedule at this point," she told me. "He plans to engage with city department heads and leaders."

She added Gatsas will work from home for the time being.

But in the view of Alderman-at-Large Dan O'Neil, the chairman of the board and its presiding officer in the mayor's absence, the mayor's health situation has not been handled well. And it raises some legal questions, namely RSA 45:13, which states "whenever the mayor of any city shall be absent or shall be disabled by sickness or otherwise, (the elected chairman) shall have all of the powers and perform all of the duties of the mayor during his absence or disability."

"First and foremost," O'Neil told me, "Ted is a friend. But second, we took an oath, and we have an obligation to make sure this city runs smoothly."

O'Neil continued, "I'm very disappointed in how this whole thing has been handled. I spoke to the mayor Monday night, and there was no indication that he was having major surgery (the next day). I'll give him that maybe he didn't know what that would lead to. But there has been no communication between his office as to what's going on. The board was informed by press release."

Complicating matters is the fact that O'Neil, a Democrat, and Gatsas, a Republican, don't see eye to eye on a lot of things.

O'Neil has been in touch with the City Solicitor's Office in an attempt to figure out what the city charter and state law call for; there's been no determination at this point, he said.

Asked just what RSA 45:13, "Absence Or Disability Of Mayor," means for the city, Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold told me, "I can't answer that at this time."

The solicitor is likely to face similar questions when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meets Tuesday.

Piatt, for her part, insisted the mayor was, even as he recovers from his operation, capable of handling the job.

"He's doing great," she said. "He's moving, he's up and walking. He's got his sense of humor, and he's got his quick wit."

All jokes aside, here's to a speedy recovery.

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On its face, the judge's ruling this month in Levasseur v. Girard would seem be a clear rebuke to the alderman. The judge granted the motions from radio host Rich Girard and the city to dismiss the suit brought by Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur, who had asserted that the parties had overstepped the bounds of the state's Right to Know Law by requesting and releasing large volumes of his email. And yet, Levasseur last week was running something of a victory lap.

While the suit was thrown out, Levasseur seized on a couple of parts of the ruling. The judge found that the city should black out personally identifying information in emails to and from constituents. And she essentially affirmed Levasseur's argument that constituent emails aren't "governmental records," as defined by the Right to Know Law. The city could still release them, she ruled, but it wasn't required to do so under the law.

Levasseur has a point in underscoring this part of the ruling. The court effectively rejected the argument the City Solicitor's Office put forward in justifying the release of the some of the emails.

As Deputy Solicitor Arnold himself put it in an email: "As a general rule, an email that is sent to or from a city email address (i.e. goes through a city server) concerning an official function of the city is a governmental or public record."The implication of the ruling is that the aldermen could set some rules and restrictions on how the city complies with right-to-know requests without running afoul of the law. And it appears that some aldermen have plans to propose as much in the near future, Levasseur among them.

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For the sake of his heart, it's probably just as well that the mayor won't be attending Monday's school board meeting. The board will likely engage in some pretty passionate debate about some issues that have been close to his, well, you know.

The board will consider dropping the residency requirement for the district's top administrators.

Gatsas has long advocated such policies, arguing the city's highest paid employees owe more to Manchester than their 40 or so hours a week. Then there's the no-nit policy. The Coordination Committee, somewhat unexpectedly, voted to largely back the recommendation of the city's health authorities to end the district's policy of sending home immediately students found with lice or nits. Instead, the new policy would give nurses and principals more discretion over whether to send a child home - and in allowing the child back into school so long as treatment has begun.

And then there's the report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that levels what has become a somewhat familiar charge: The district is not doing enough to improve the performance of minority students.

You might remember last time a civil rights group made similar allegations at City Hall a year and a half ago. The mayor basically chased them out of the chamber.

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.