Ted Siefer's City Hall: 'From silly to absurd,' charter panel seen spinning its wheels
The Charter Commision is the vehicle by which citizens can alter the city's basic governing document, but judging by its meeting Wednesday, the wheels may be falling off.
Since they were voted into office in November, the commissioners have heard from a panel of mayors past and present, the school superintendent, passionate parents, city officials and their own legal counsel.
With an April 25 deadline to submit proposed Charter changes to the Secretary of State's Office, it's about time to get down to business, at least this seemed to be the consensus at the start of the meeting.
Commissioner Nick Pappas made the initially modest sounding motion to vote on whether to move forward in considering a list of education-related changes. Next came a series of confusing counter motions and amendments, during which Pappas would withdraw his initial motion.
In the end, the commission voted to have further discussion of four changes, including moving up the timeline for establishing a school budget, diminishing the mayor's role on the school board, and lowering the number of votes needed to override the tax cap - all priorities for the public education advocates on the panel.
The vote was 5-4, and it may have been the first case of the slim Democratic majority on the panel flexing its muscle.
But did the vote mean that some of the changes backed by the commission's more conservative members were now off the table, such as making the school district a city department?
"It sounds like we voted not to have any discussion on the topic," said Rich Girard, the commission's vice chairman. "I think we have gone from silly to absurd."
Chairman Jerome Duval had earlier sought to reassure the panel. "There will be plenty of opportunity, folks, to revisit this until the last point we have," he said.
The session also exposed tensions between Duval, who has assumed the role of amiable moderator among the panel's factions, and Girard, the wonkish conservative and stickler for parliamentary procedure.
True to form, at the end of the metting Girard offered a list that he drew up with Commissioner Mike Lopez, outlining recommended procedures for upcoming meetings. The goal, according to the document he submitted, would be to "address expressed concerns with the commission's proceedings and progress and to provide greater clarity and structure to our work."
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On Wednesday, the Executive Council approved a $3.6 million study to examine the feasibility of the so-called Capitol Corridor, a train line that would run from Concord to Nashua - and then connect to Boston's commuter rail system.
While Nashua's mayor has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, it's safe to say the mayor of the state's largest city, which would be the central stop along the route, is not on board just yet.
"The study is going on," Mayor Ted Gatsas said. "It's supposed to tell us what the cost will be and how we'll pay for it. I'll be interested to see that."
Several options for the rail line are expected to be considered in the study, including locating stops at the Manchester airport and making the Queen City, rather than Concord, the terminus for the line.
Gatsas isn't sold just yet that the economic benefits from the project would justify its cost to build and operate. "It's like anything else. There are wants, and there are needs," he said.
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Speaking of economic development, the mayor and his staff will likely be pretty busy tending to such matters over the coming weeks.
The city's Economic Development Office is losing Chris Wellington, who had been the man in charge after the abrupt resignation of the office's former chief, Jay Minkarah, late last year.
Wellington tendered his resignation last week, but will stick around for a few weeks to ease the transition. He's taking a job with the state Department of Resources and Economic Development as "business retention specialist" in the western part of the state.
He said the ongoing debate about the future of the office had little to do with his decision. "The fact is, a better opportunity came," he said.
Mayor Gatsas has advocated reassessing the city's approach to economic development and has questioned whether the office needs a full-time director.
In the meantime, Gatsas said, his office can handle taking on additional responsibilities of the economic development office.
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Things can get pretty prickly at aldermanic meetings, so it's worth noting that Mayor Gatsas took a little time at Tuesday's session to acknowledge the nuptial news the board's two young Democrats, Aldermen Garth Corriveau, who is newly engaged, and Patrick Arnold, who recently married Kathleen Kelly, the former school board member. Still, it's unlikely that Gatsas, who is Patrick's rival for mayor, was on the guest list.
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Last week, when the mayor relaunched a newsletter for city employees with the stated goal of fostering greater communication among the departments, he said he could scarcely remember the last time the city put out such a publication.
The memory of Mike Roche, head of the United Steelworkers local, is not so hazy.
The last issue of "City Chatter" went out in July 2011, Roche said - and he was quick to provide me with a copy.
Roche had been the union representative on the Quality Council, the group of department heads and community representatives that had been responsible for the quarterly, which ran about 12 pages.
The last issue was laid out by a city librarian, and by her recollection, it ceased publication due to budget cuts.
Roche and Gatsas aren't exactly on great terms these days.
As the representative for Water Works employees, Roche has been trying to get the aldermen to consider concessions before formal negotiations open on their contract, due to expire June 30. Recall that the steelworkers and the police support staff union were the only two city unions that did not agree to concessions last year.
"It's ironic the mayor thinks it's so important to communicate with the department heads, when it was the Mayor's Office that did away with the funding," Roche said, referring to the earlier newsletter. "I guess it is election time."
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The British are coming. On Monday, a delegation of business leaders and government officials from northwest England will be at City Hall at 9:15 a.m. to discuss potential trade and cultural partnerships with Manchester. It is the Queen City after all.
Ted Siefer may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.