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March 01. 2014 10:53PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Levasseur comes out swinging with lawsuit against city


 

ONE MIGHT have thought that after being formally censured by his colleagues a couple of weeks ago, Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur would assume a lower profile, at least for a little while.

Nope.

On Tuesday, Levasseur announced that he was filing a lawsuit against the city of Manchester and radio host Rich Girard, who has become his most public nemesis of late. The suit, filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court, seeks to block the release of materials sought by Girard through right-to-know requests. Those materials include emails between the alderman and constituents, records Levasseur argues should stay private. He also argues Girard should compensate the city for the time it took to furnish the materials.

One can question Levasseur's motivation in bringing the suit, but he may end up raising a valid issue - one that will be getting more attention from the aldermen in the coming weeks.

Freshman Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry has been meeting with department heads and will be sitting down with the city clerk and solicitor this week to discuss ideas for a uniform policy for how the city responds to right-to-know requests. Barry expects to have something to present to the Administration Committee later this month.

"I've spoken to a few department heads about how they handle right-to-know requests, and everyone seems to be doing it differently," Barry said. "I wanted to make sure everyone's protected and that everyone's on the same page when it comes to the requests. This is in no way to block information, because I truly believe in right-to-know."

Barry also questioned whether a constituent's correspondence with his or her alderman should be considered governmental records, which has been the position of the City Solicitor's Office.

"Doing police work, you sometimes develop confidential informants," Barry said. "As aldermen, some of the information we get, there's no doubt in my mind, they don't want their name (released)."

There's also the issue of cost. Barry noted, as does Levasseur's suit, that the city's Information Systems Department devoted 40 hours to complying with requests related to Levasseur's emails.

Of course, Barry isn't a completely disinterested party in all of this. One of Girard's right-to-know requests concerns communications Levasseur had with critics of the Manchester Dog Park Association, which was founded and is run by Phil Greazzo, whom Barry defeated in November. Greazzo has accused Levasseur of siding with the dog park critics, along with a host of other misdeeds. More on this later.

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In his suit, Levasseur accuses Girard of sending the city on a fishing expedition that netted "over 11,000 pages of emails containing Alderman Levasseur's name or email address." Girard insists that he made two very specific requests. And, as it turns out, the first of them originated with a request from, of all people, Levasseur himself.

Girard's first right-to-know request was a "me, too"; he wanted records produced for another New Hampshire Union Leader reporter. And the reporter's request was meant to "duplicate" a request Levasseur made on July 31, 2013, for emails between himself and staff with the "Manchester Building Department." Levasseur was presumably aware that the newspaper was digging into something that concerned him - and he wanted to know what the city had.

So will Levasseur also demand compensation from himself for the cost of producing these original records?

It's Girard's subsequent request, however, that likely prompted Levasseur to seek an injunction. (Girard has already received the file containing the Union Leader-requested emails.)

Girard, convinced that Levasseur had conspired with the critics of the dog park association, requested in November "any and all email communications" between Levasseur and the dog park dissidents, as well as Bill Barry, over a roughly six-month period. The City Solicitor's Office hasn't released this final batch of emails, but was prepared to do so - until Levasseur's suit.

If nothing else, the lawsuit could end up being a test case for whether constituent emails constitute government records under Chapter 91-A, a.k.a. the Right to Know Law.

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Greazzo, for his part, is not relenting in his dogged pursuit of Levasseur, even after his censure last month.

He's made his own "written and attested complaint by a citizen of the city" to have the Conduct Board weigh several alleged violations by Levasseur, including "unethical and dishonest conduct." Perhaps the most intriguing part of the letter he sent to the city clerk concerns a section of state law, Chapter 49-C:13, that states an "elected body may, on specific charges and after due notice and hearing, at any time remove the mayor or one of its own members for cause."

The section would appear to contradict what City Solicitor Tom Clark told the aldermen at their meeting last month: that, much as some aldermen might want to do so, they can't vote out Levasseur.

But Clark's opinion stands. He told me the section of state law cited by Greazzo is merely "a template" for a municipal charter; Manchester has a different charter, one that lacks any mechanism for the removal of an alderman by his or her colleagues, Clark said.

The aldermen's meeting is on Tuesday, and it's likely Levasseur, Greazzo and Girard will all have some things to say. We'll see if the hatchet gets buried - or unsheathed yet again.

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.


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