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Paul Feely's City Hall: Mayor-elect Craig says she's ready to hit the ground running

By PAUL FEELY
November 12. 2017 12:57AM

On Tuesday, Joyce Craig defeated four-term incumbent Ted Gatsas to become Manchester's first female mayor. (Allegra Boverman/New Hampshire Sunday News)



Nearly a week has passed since she became Mayor-elect, but Joyce Craig still can't walk more than a block along Elm Street without receiving congratulatory hugs from supporters.

"People are excited," said Craig. "They are ready for a change in leadership in the city."

Craig, who last week became the first female elected mayor of the Queen City, said she enjoyed her first day as Mayor-elect of the state's largest city.

"It was very busy, but really good," said Craig. "Lots of phone calls and emails. Folks were calling and congratulating. Folks were also sending ideas, which was great. I know we have an awful lot of work to do going forward, and it's starting already."

Craig, who defeated four-term incumbent Mayor Ted Gatsas, 53 percent to 47 percent, said she is "proud and humbled" to be the first woman to crack the glass ceiling in the corner office at City Hall Plaza, but doesn't feel the honor puts any extra pressure on her to shine as a leader.

"I am the mother of two daughters, and they were with us Tuesday night," said Craig. "It's so nice every little girl in Manchester, or young woman here growing up, knows that this is an option available to them and that anything is possible. I didn't win two years ago and came back and worked really hard and our hard work paid off. I think it's a great message for everybody, but I don't feel added pressure at all. It's great that it happened, but it's done. The hard work is ahead of us, and I look forward to doing it."

Craig said she has already started preparations to take the reins of city government from Gatsas when she is sworn in as mayor, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 2, 2018.

"I've been in touch with the city clerk's office in terms of transition planning, and hope to speak to Mayor Gatsas (this) week about the transition process," said Craig. "I need to meet with department heads, and I've talked to some school board members and aldermen already, but look forward to having individual meetings with them as well to talk about what's working, what's not and how we can work together to build a stronger Manchester. I really do appreciate everything Mayor Gatsas has done for the city over the last eight years, I mean that, and I look forward to working with him to ensure a smooth transition over the next two months."

Craig said she wants to work towards restoring "decorum" at city meetings, particularly the school board, which she will chair come January.

She recalled something former Mayor Sylvio Dupuis shared with her about monthly meetings he would hold with aldermen.

"He kept a file, and when he'd meet with an alderman representing a ward he would open it up and ask what's going on in the ward," said Craig. "What's the issues, and what can I do to help you? They would discuss it, take care of it, then meet again the following month to do a recap. We need to build trust back on both boards, and need to be able to have an open dialogue."

Craig said during these one-on-one meetings, issues expected to come up at board meetings were addressed.

"This way, they were not such a surprise and the meetings weren't as negative," said Craig. "You can bring decorum back to the meetings, which I think is really important for the adults to be showing we can do that. It better represents who we are as a city. I took that to heart."

Craig said plans for her first 90 days in office will be built around conversations she plans to have with department heads, including Superintendant of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

"I want to hear what's working, what's not, and what we can do to move things forward from their perspectives, in combination with plans I put forward," said Craig. "I think transparency can be addressed pretty quickly, and accessibility."

Craig said she would like to start holding office hours at a location like Bridge Cafe, so residents can speak to her outside of the City Hall setting.

"Going before a board can be pretty daunting, sometimes overwhelming," said Craig.

She has yet to name her office staff team. Throw in the little matter of crafting a tax-cap budget, and the Mayor-elect's to-do list might seem overwhelming.

Such is life in the corner office at City Hall.

"There are things that can happen pretty quick, and others that will take some time," said Craig. "But we've got to shoot for the stars and be pretty aggressive, and do everything we can to make sure we are addressing the needs of every person in Manchester."

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The tax rate that determines what city property owners will pay for local government during FY 2018 will be 18 cents higher than the 2017 rate. The state Department of Revenue Administration certified the Manchester tax rate last week at $23.32 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.

For the owner of a home assessed at the city's average median home value of $217,600, the annual tax bill will be $5,074 for the year, while the bill on a $150,000 home will be $3,498.

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Looking at last week's 40 percent voter turnout, compared to the 80 percent turnout figure in 2016, might suggest some voter apathy when it comes to local elections vs. federal contests.

Not necessarily, says City Clerk Matt Normand.

"I think turnout percentages can be a little misleading when we try to gauge voter engagement," said Normand. "Voter turnout is only a quotient of the total checklist at that moment in time. Turnout percentages in municipal elections have certainly been higher, but not necessarily because more voters went to the polls. Percentages were higher because the checklist was much smaller."

Normand said what he really thinks last week's election numbers shine a light on is that, since 1981, the total votes cast this year eclipses every year except 1981, when Democrat Emile Beaulieu beat Republican Richard Jacobs, and 1999, when Democrat Bob Baines beat Republican Ray Wieczorek.

The city was coming off of an eight-year run by Mayor Charles "Dick" Stanton, who did not run for reelection in 1981, and a 10-year run by Mayor Wieczorek in 1999. In similar fashion, this year's contest came after eight years with Gatsas at the helm.

"Would we love to see higher voter turnout? Of course we would," said Normand. "I would also argue though that Manchester voters displayed an exceptional level of engagement ... Collectively, we need to continue to increase voter engagement moving forward by reconsidering our current election process, expanding voter outreach efforts to elevate awareness, and embracing available technology advancements at the polls to improve the voter experience on election day."

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As of week's end, Normand said he had received two recount requests from candidates losing close contests in last Tuesday's election - Pat Long, who lost his bid for reelection to the Ward 3 alderman seat by 7 votes to Tim Baines, and Peter Macone, who lost the Ward 6 aldermanic race to Elizabeth Moreau by 25 votes.

Incumbent Ward 2 school board menber Debra Langton, who lost her reelection bid to David Scannell by 20 votes, remained undecided at week's end on requesting a recount.

"Many supporters have requested that I ask for a recount," said Langton. "Over the weekend, with the help of family and friends, I will make the decision."

The deadline to request a recount is Monday at 5 p.m.

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And finally, one last note from last week's general election.

Liam Colby, 20 and a resident of Manchester's Ward 2, may have travelled the farthest to cast a ballot.

Colby, a supporter of Craig and Scannell, told his parents that he had forgotten to mail in his absentee ballot while at school. That was no excuse not to vote, they said.

His mother, Amy, who had already voted herself and transported a neighbor to the polls at Hillside Middle School, informed Liam she was driving to his Plymouth State University dorm to pick him up after class.

Liam arrived in Manchester with about an hour to spare before voting. After attending the Craig victory party at the Puritan Conference Center, Liam was transported back to Plymouth.

Scannell, who won by only 20 votes, was particularly grateful to Colby for his efforts.

"In my race, every vote counted," said Scannell. "I am truly thankful Liam made such an effort to participate."

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


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