November 24. 2012 10:50PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Electing Charter Commission chairman takes rounds, politicking

New Hampshire Union Leader

The first meeting of the city's newly elected Charter Commission didn't exactly get off to an auspicious start.

The nine members had only a few orders of business to tend to on Wednesday, first among them choosing a chairman. In what appears to be a first in Manchester history, the members split their votes three ways. Jerome Duval, Mike Lopez and Rich Girard each received three votes.

It took three rounds of voting and an hour of political intrigue before Duval got the five votes to become chairman.

Girard, part of the minority conservative bloc on a panel, said he nominated himself for chairman because, "I wanted to make a point about how things should be handled."

"I don't think we got off to the right start," Girard said, alluding to discussions about the chairmanship among the members that occurred before the meeting. "Our efforts for the city are best served through public discussions."

Girard and his ally Will Infantine would end up voting for Duval in the final round. And Girard was then elected vice chairman, with Duval serving as a swing vote. A quid pro quo?

The favored pick for chairman among the more solidly Democratic bloc on the panel, state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, former alderman Lopez, and John Clayton, the former Union Leader columnist, was Lopez.

After the dust settled, Duval quickly assumed the of role of the diplomatic chairman. "I think the people of Manchester got it right to elect all of us," he said. "We're well balanced, and that's what they wanted."

But there were more bumps to come.

Christine Martin, the principal at Webster Elementary School, was nominated to be the panel's secretary, but she wasn't inclined to accept.

"I'm somewhat concerned about the stereotypical implications of the only female on the commission serving as secretary," she said with a laugh.

Once the nature of the position was explained - that it really had to do with signing off on expenses and very little in the way of "secretarial" duties - Martin agreed to accept the nomination.

The meeting also gave City Clerk Matt Normand the chance to set some boundaries. The day before the meeting, the aldermen had voted to allocate $25,000 to a special commission account (that's about how much the past two commissions had spent).

Normand wanted the commissioners to understand that his office was already stretched when it came to clerking.

In other words, note taking, transcription, legal matters - that's what the commission's budget was for. "We simply do not have the staff to transcribe. It's not about the money. We simply don't have the bodies," Normand stressed, adding, "I would certainly help find someone to transcribe for you. It is sort of a lost art."

If the first meeting was any indication, the commission's transcriptionist will be busy. The meeting lasted for nearly two hours.

We'll see how the group fares when it actually gets to the work of altering the basic fabric of city government.

- - - - - - -

There goes the neighborhood? The aldermen last week approved a change in zoning for a parcel of land off Front Street allowing for the construction of a multifamily development.

The Socha Companies plans to build a 27-unit townhouse-style complex on the 1.57 acre plot, in the north west corner of the city near the Intervale Country Club.

Abutters had opposed the project, as had Rich Girard, the former alderman and current radio host and financial adviser. (For the record, Girard does not live in the area.)

He has staked his argument largely on the contention that the development will lead to dozens of new students in the public schools, at a cost - $10,000 per pupil is the estimate - that the tax revenue from the project wouldn't come close to covering.

"Of what benefit is this to Manchester?" he asked the aldermen during the public comment period at Tuesday's meeting.

Joyce Craig, the alderman for Ward 1, where the parcel is located, echoed these arguments ahead of the vote.

"I'm pro-development, pro-young professionals and pro-families. But the development needs to be smart," she said. "With our schools in the crisis they are in today, these large multifamily developments are not paying their full share for the schools."

Craig joined Aldermen Pat Long, William Shea, Ed Osborne and Jim Roy - who comprise what might be called the white hair caucus - in voting against the zoning change.

Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur voted with the majority to change the zoning.

He noted that if you looked at the tax bill for the average single family house, it also wouldn't cover the $10,000 per-pupil cost, let alone if the household had more than one child.

"I think this is a comparison of apples to oranges," he said.

- - - - - - -

Levasseur would find himself in the extreme minority later in the evening, when he once again called for changes to how the city's Welfare Department operates.

This time he questioned why the welfare office closes every weekday - with no public access - for lunch and then for at least two hours on Wednesdays.

"I don't see why, with a staff of 12 to 13, they have to close at all," he said. "They can stagger lunch breaks, like every other department. The tax department is open all day. There are people looking to access our services. It's another example what of what's going on with this department."

Some other examples that Levasseur has railed against include the fact the most of the agency's budget goes toward staffing, including the commissioner's $113,000 salary, and reports that needy people have been turned away by the agency with little explanation.

Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau told the aldermen that the office has closed for lunch for years, and that it closed from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday to meet with nonprofit agencies to discuss cases.

Levasseur proposed the department stay open through the lunch hour. He couldn't even get someone to second the motion.

- - - - - - - -

Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.