Oh, holy cow, it was anything but a silent night
THE ALDERMANIC HALL was decked with holly, but there wasn't a whole lot of Christmas cheer on Tuesday night, when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen held its last meeting before the holiday break and the new year.
The meeting featured shouting, gavel pounding and, at its lowest point, seemed to be on the verge of violence. That moment came after city attorney Peter Chiesa delivered the results of his investigation into claims Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo made against his colleague, Joe Kelly Levasseur.
Chiesa concluded that Greazzo's central allegation, that Levasseur violated the charter by improperly obtaining and disclosing confidential information about the Manchester dog park, was without merit. In no time, Greazzo dropped the "L word," accusing Levasseur of telling one lie after another.
Greazzo - the man who built the dog park with his own sweat and money and who is normally restrained and deliberative - did not come off well in this episode.
Greazzo had alleged Levasseur had used his status as an alderman to get an agent at Aspen Insurance, the MDPA's broker, to tell him that there was a lapse in its liability insurance. The MDPA was required to get coverage under the agreement it signed with the city to use public land for the dog park. In fact, Greazzo insisted, there was never a lapse and he submitted documents showing that the MDPA had coverage since 2010.
Levasseur told Chiesa, according to his report, that the agent, whom Levasseur knows because Aspen is also his broker, told him there was a lapse specifically between Sept. 20 and Oct. 25.
The agent is the only person who could've said definitively whether she felt pressured to share information with Levasseur because he's an alderman and whether she told him there was a lapse. But, according to Chiesa, the MDPA would not authorize the agent to release information about its account.
"Per Alderman Greazzo," Chiesa writes in his report, "the MDPA will not authorize the agency to make that information available."
Chiesa further notes that the status of the MDPA's insurance was not confidential or private, since MDPA was not a person, but a nonprofit in a binding agreement with the city.
"We are of the opinion that the general public has a legitimate interest to information regarding whether an agreement concerning the use of public property is being properly administered," Chiesa writes.
Levasseur did not take kindly to Greazzo questioning his credibility, and he's not one to take an insult lightly. "You should be completely ashamed," he said, staring down Greazzo. He accused Greazzo of giving him a funny look. "You think this is funny?" he said.
It was then that Mayor Ted Gatsas banged his gavel and a called for a recess.
Let's hope that the two let sleeping dogs lie, although it seems unlikely that we've heard the last about this issue.
Later in the evening, as the snow piled up outside, Gatsas nearly brought down the gavel again - again in response to some heated words from Levasseur.
This time, there were several aldermen who expressed strong opinions about the issue at hand: the Fire Department's looming deficit and the larger concerns it raised about the state of the city's finances and the possibility of layoffs.
Gatsas had some hard questions for Fire Chief James Burkush, who is projecting a $200,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, due in large part to overtime costs.
Levasseur accused the mayor of singling out the chief. "To sit here and berate the chief," he said. "You should see the way you go after this guy all the time. It's getting sickening."
The mayor denied he was berating Burkush, and the chief certainly didn't say as much.
But Ward 2 Alderman Ron Ludwig said that the needs facing department heads could be seen plainly on the streets.
"Hairdressers being knocked off and robbed. . (And) with all due respect to highway workers, this was the worst plowing job I've ever seen. We lost 24 mailboxes. It's a good thing they weren't kids," Ludwig said. "We're doing a lot of things where we're just rolling the dice."
It may have been an early indication that some aldermen are contemplating the unthinkable: an override of the tax cap that went into effect a few years ago.
Fortunately, Tuesday's meeting ended on a brighter note. There was even something of a Christmas miracle, when Levasseur had kinds words for Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold, who more than once has been on the receiving end of the alderman's harangues. Levasseur praised him for winning an arbitrator's ruling that upheld the firing of Stephen Coco, the former police sergeant accused in a hit-and-run.
Gatsas is not one for flowery speeches, but he offered some apt closing comments after the tense session. He bid farewell to Greazzo and Patrick Arnold, the two aldermen who won't be returning in January.
Then Gatsas said: "I know we're facing challenges. It's good we're having these conversations early. . We should be as collegial as we can with each other and try to come to a common understanding."
Then he invited the aldermen to stand and wish the public a merry Christmas.
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter: @tbsreporter.