Ted Siefer's City Hall: Hold your horses, Tex; just how weird was it?
Maybe it was because the aldermen felt less restrained in their first meeting since the election; maybe it was the lingering effects of Sunday's full moon. In any case, there was a weird energy at Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, starting with the guy in the cowboy hat who delivered a rambling monologue during the public comment period and several outbursts throughout the night.
The topic that seemed to dominate the evening, both the full board meeting and an earlier meeting of the Committee on Accounts, was itself kind of weird: the dog park. What started with complaints from a handful of disgruntled former park users about Manchester Dog Park Association (MDPA) has escalated into the latest feud involving Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur.
The dog park, of course, is largely the work of Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo. Levasseur entered the fray by suggesting at the previous aldermen's meeting that the MDPA had let its liability insurance lapse, the key component of the agreement it had entered into with the city to use the land for the park.
The move has clearly lit a fire under Greazzo and he sought to throw the book at Levasseur, a Republican.
At Tuesday's meeting, Greazzo made his case that Levasseur should be referred to the conduct board, arguing that by obtaining the insurance information and gabbing about it at the previous meeting, he had violated a section of the charter concerning the disclosure of confidential information.
But the other aldermen would have no part in it. Greazzo couldn't even get a second for his motion.
"My position is that sending someone to the conduct board is very serious," said Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig. "To me, this is a 'he-said-she-said' situation."
This was essentially the view proffered by Peter Chiesa, a lawyer in the city solicitor's department. By way of disclosure, Chiesa also mentioned that he had once represented Levasseur in an unspecified "civil matter."
But Greazzo wasn't ready to let the issue lie. Later in the evening, acting on the suggestion of Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, he invoked another section of the charter, 8.15, under which any alleged violation of the legal code "shall be referred to the mayor, who shall review the allegation with the official or officials involved."
And this request didn't require a vote of the aldermen.
The move essentially dropped the matter into the lap of Mayor Ted Gatsas, a man with whom Levasseur has had his share of quarrels of late.
Levasseur has indicated that he's not interested in participating in such a tribunal. "I'm not about to go into a hostile office, with a hostile mayor that did everything in his power to make sure I did not win reelection, and discuss anything that he can twist to his own political benefit and become a he said, she said ordeal," he said in an email.
And Greazzo has since made it clear that he intends to raise a laundry list of allegations against Levasseur, including that he lied to building inspectors and misrepresented an incident in which he accused a Manchester police officer of intimidating him.
Greazzo also noted that if Levasseur doesn't agree to meet with the mayor, "his refusal constitutes another violation" of the charter.
Gatsas has given no indication of how he'll proceed.
The charter states that if the mayor's review does not resolve the matter, it shall be referred to the city's chief legal officer, who in turn must make a report to the aldermen within 90 days. But speaking to the whole fracas over the dog park, Gatsas had some supportive words for Greazzo.
"I want to say you're someone who was very dogged in getting the dog park," he said at Tuesday's meeting. "We should thank you and commend you for it. You took money out of your pocket and did what you said you were going to do. . I know people in Manchester thank you, and I know the dogs thank you."
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So was there any legitimacy to the claims that the MDPA's insurance had lapsed? It doesn't look like it. This was the lukewarm conclusion of Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold at the Accounts Committee meeting earlier in the day. Greazzo had furnished documents indicating that the MDPA had been covered since before the dog park opened.
Still, Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold wanted there to be a more thorough review, and the aldermen later passed a motion to this effect.
Arnold said he appreciated Greazzo's "candor" on the issue, but he wanted the review to put any concerns to rest.
"It seems we've spent more time on this item than a lot of other issues," he said.
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Continuing the theme of novel occurrences, Tuesday's meeting also saw Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau come hat in hand to the aldermen. He was projecting a $270,000 deficit for the year because of increased demand for emergency shelter, burials and other assistance. Martineau, as you may know, has made the savings he's brought to the department and his rigorous review process a central plank in his many campaigns for office, including the one he just won.
There won't be any adjustments to at least one line in the welfare budget: Martineau's $114,000 salary. The aldermen, by the narrowest of margins, rejected a motion from Levasseur to set the commissioner's salary at $80,000. The welfare commissioner post is an outlier in city government, it being the only elected position subject to annual steps and COLAs under the Yarger Decker system. Levasseur's proposal would have given the post a set salary like that for the mayor who gets a flat $68,000.
Gatsas said he believed the change would prompt Martineau to step down immediately to lock in his pension rate, and that would force the city to hold a special election.
But the city clerk said such a vacancy would be filled by the aldermen, not an election.
All the better, Levasseur said: Leaving the seat unfilled would go a long way toward plugging the budget hole.
In the end, Martineau avoided a haircut, but only by a hair. The vote was 6-6, with two abstentions.
Would Martineau have retired if the aldermen had passed the measure? He never returned a call last week.
But he did make his views known during the meeting about the prospect of a $34,000 pay cut.
"No, I'm not OK with that," he said. "When I took over the position, I also got on Yarger Decker. I just want to be treated like any other."
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.