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Paul Feely's City Hall: City clerk urges review of Manchester's primary elections

By PAUL FEELY
October 21. 2017 10:02PM
Manchester mayoral candidates Joyce Craig and Ted Gatsas 

"One person, one vote" is one of the cornerstones of democracy - but how much is that vote worth?

In terms of Manchester's September primary municipal election, try $25.

City Clerk Matt Normand finds that figure "extraordinary'' and thinks the city needs to have a discussion about whether primaries in our nonpartisan elections are a good idea.

A grand total of $276,809.29 was spent on the primary election. That includes all Candidate/PAC Reports of Expenses filed 10 days before - $185,756.66 - and 10 days after - $46,969.66 - the election. Combine that with city expenses listed at $44,082.97, and you have just under $277,000 spent on a primary election that drew 11,081 people to the polls, or 19.8 percent of registered voters.

That equals $24.98 - rounded up to $25 - spent per primary vote.

"Increasing voter participation is a challenge for every municipality across the country," said Normand. "Nonpartisan election turnout remains in line with partisan election turnout in off-year state elections, so I really do not see the answer being found by reverting back to partisan elections."

Normand said that every city in New Hampshire has nonpartisan elections. But only two, Manchester and Keene, still hold primary municipal elections. He said Keene is taking a look at eliminating primary elections.

"Given the relatively low voter participation and vast sums of money expended by all stakeholders, including local taxpayers,'' the clerk said, "the city needs to think about having a serious, nonpartisan discussion about the local election process.''

He added, "There should be a discussion about whether one election, winner take all, like we just had for the special election in Ward 6, would suffice when electing local officials and bring greater significance to Election Day."

Normand said the city could hold a run-off election for the mayor's office if the top vote-getter doesn't receive more than 50 percent of the votes citywide, similar to what Nashua and Concord do.

"Whether or not this definitively increases voter turnout by having one municipal election every two years is debatable, but this type of discussion to improve the municipal election process needs to happen," said Normand.

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City resident Jim Gaudet of Ward 8, who filed complaints earlier this year against aldermen Ron Ludwig of Ward 2 and Normand Gamache of Ward 11 alleging violations of the city charter, sent another complaint to Mayor Ted Gatsas' office, claiming At-Large School Board member Nancy Tessier violated the charter and several state laws when she included nonpublic information regarding personnel matters in an email to board members, city officials and the employees who were the topics of the behind-closed-doors discussions.

In the complaint, dated Oct. 11, Gaudet accuses Tessier of violating her oath of office as contained in the city charter.

In his complaint Gaudet writes:

"- That Tessier participated in a non-public session of the Board of School Committee discussing confidential personnel matters, and sending an email discussing those proceedings and included persons in that email not entitled to disclosure and without legal authorization to do so;

"- Vice Chairman Art Beaudry commissioned an investigation into the communication by Tessier, which resulted in a finding that Tessier committed violations of RSA 91-A, thus violating her oath of office and the City Charter provisions under Section 9.03[c] in disclosing confidential information. By so doing, she also violated her Oath of Office contained in the Charter;

"- A report of findings was sent to the Board of School Committee by Attorney James A. O'Shaughnessy detailing Tessier's violations;

"- And Tessier participated in the voting on the motion before the Board of School Committee to receive and file the attorney's letter, which directly impacted her. She also voted on At Large Committeeman Rich Girard's motion to release O'Shaughnessy's letter, also in violation of the City Charter under Section 9.03 [e];

"Further, the Board of School Committee unlawfully entered non-public session or a so-called non-meeting with Attorney O'Shaughnessy to discuss Tessier's violations as elected officials are exempt from the provisions of RSA 91-A:3, I [c], and Tessier was allowed to be present."

The complaint was received by Gatsas' office, and sent to City Solicitor Emily Gray Rice for review.

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When Gatsas presented a plan last week for a solar power purchase agreement and landfill land lease between the city and BFHJ Clean Energy of New Jersey, several aldermen questioned why the information was coming before the full board - just three weeks before the municipal election - rather than going through the committee process.

Mayoral candidate Joyce Craig labeled the proposal "nowhere near ready" to be presented to the full board.

"Although he acknowledged being aware of the issue for weeks, Mayor Gatsas failed to provide any information to the Aldermen until tonight," said Craig in a statement. "Mayor Gatsas is attempting to rush this issue through the board to score political points before the election. He should have followed the usual protocol and sent this to the city's energy committee for proper vetting."

Craig's comments followed statements released by her campaign regarding $150,000 in state funds for the city's Safe Station program.

"This is good news for Manchester's Safe Station program and those dealing with substance misuse," said Craig. "Safe Station has been a great tool to help people receive recovery services and I am thankful to our first responders for implementing this program. Unfortunately, Ted Gatsas didn't bother to take action to make sure Safe Station is recognized as a statewide resource until three weeks before his next election. I've advocated for state recognition for months and I am glad Mayor Gatsas decided to take my lead and ask for funding in Concord this week. We need a mayor who works for Manchester every day, not just in the weeks leading up to an election."

In response, Gatsas campaign manager Ross Berry called out Craig for her "consistently negative" comments.

"This is the style of campaigning that turns voters off and harms the city's image that Mayor Gatsas has worked tirelessly to build and promote," said Berry.

"Craig doesn't have a record of accomplishments to run on so instead she's using negative campaign tactics to divide the city as much as possible. The voters see through this rhetoric and the taxpayers know better. Craig should ask herself why she is running for Mayor when she seems to hate everything about the city."

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A reminder - Craig and Gatsas will take part in a mayoral debate Wednesday at the Puritan Conference and Event Center, 245 Hooksett Road. The debate is hosted by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Bellwether Community Credit Union.

The event includes a breakfast from 7:30 to 8 a.m. and the debate from 8 to 9 a.m., and is open to Chamber members as well as the public. Registration is required. Visit www.manchester-chamber.org for information.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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