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Ted Siefer's City Hall: World Series it wasn't, but debate had some hits

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 02. 2013 8:02PM

We've seen the last full week of campaigning before Tuesday's election, and you could tell it was the ninth inning by the passionate performances of both Mayor Ted Gatsas and his challenger, Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold, at the debate on Wednesday.

The debate, of course, came on the same night as the Red Sox' triumph in the World Series, and residents could be forgiven if they kept the channel on the game. Still, while it couldn't compare to the action on the field, the debate was lively and combative. And the forum, the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council debate, was all the more remarkable in that it was hosted by high school students - and they had clearly done their homework.

Gatsas and Arnold jousted over the budget, school funding and crime. Arnold is known for his blunt attacks on the mayor, and on Wednesday he pulled another arrow from his quiver. He faulted the mayor for budgeting $10,000 for the three staffers in his office. Giving raises to his staff was inappropriate, Arnold argued, given the cuts other departments were being forced to absorb.

Gatsas noted the staffers, unlike other city workers, didn't receive any cost-of-living increases or raises of any kind. "If my opponent thinks that's fair, that's his opinion," Gatsas said.

Then Gatsas pivoted: "My opponent has not in four years brought forward a budget; he has not talked to department heads about the budget. He didn't even work with his colleagues on the last budget."

Arnold replied that it's the mayor's job to come up with a budget, and he chided Gatsas for fixating on numbers rather than a larger plan. "There you go again mayor, saying, 'How are you going to pay for it?'" he said. "The mayor's job is to have a vision."

The first debate of the evening, between candidates for the alderman-at-large seats, was considerably milder. Only two of the four candidates showed up: Joe Kelly Levasseur, the incumbent, and S. Daniel Mattingly, an earnest young man who appeared to be not much older than the debate's moderators.

The other incumbent, Dan O'Neil, stressed that he has a good record of participating in the MYAC debates, but this year he "had a conflict," which he declined to specify. Will Infantine, who is considered a strong candidate, also regretted not being able to attend. Arguably, he had a good excuse: He had tickets to the World Series game, which he considered a "once in a lifetime" chance.

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One could almost forget that besides choosing among 60 candidates on Tuesday, voters will get to decide whether to alter the fabric of the city's governing document. On the ballot will be nine proposed charter revisions, devised earlier this year by the Charter Commission. These include hiking the mayor's pay to $100,000 from $68,000, where it has stood since 1997, and making serving on the aldermanic and school boards a cash-only gig; the members' health and dental benefits would be eliminated while stipends would be raised to $9,000 and $7,000 for aldermen and school board members, respectively.

Those are some pretty big ideas, although there have been no opinion pieces, no lobbying or advertising, either pro or con. This is quite the contrast from 2003, the last time a Charter Commission convened. Then, there was concerted campaigning against the changes; both the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the school board railed against the proposals, which included making the school district a department of the city and the elimination of at-large seats. The slate of changes was ultimately rejected. Jerome Duval, the chairman of this year's Charter Commission, said he believed a public campaign was unnecessary because the proposed changes are relatively simple and uncontroversial.

"I'm a big believer in letting the voters decide," he said. "Voters I think have a very minimal task in front of them. This is not 20 changes; it's nine revisions that are straightforward."

He added that the commission wanted to avoid catering to the special interests that might fund a public-relations campaign.

"It's sort of nice to keep it pure. We didn't have to solicit support from any group," he said. "It's going straight to voters without any interference from any partisan group."

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Despite the looming election, both the aldermen and the school board managed to hold meetings last week. On Tuesday, the aldermen voted to table a proposal to form a committee to craft a new five-year economic development plan, although they may have missed a chance to stage a haunted house at City Hall. Based on the discussion of the issue, the Economic Development Office has become a pretty scary place.

Gatsas urged the aldermen to table the plan until new Economic Development Director Will Craig has a chance to get his bearings. "I would ask the board to give him a chance to get into the office before looking at another six people. For the last week and a half, he's been trying to find the floor with all the stuff in there," he said.

There did seem to be a consensus that the abrupt departure of the former economic chief a year ago left the office in an awful state.

"The office was a shambles. There were boxes all over the place. Nobody can have a conference there," conceded Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, the one who has proposed moving forward on the new five-year plan.

There was some push-back against the notion that Craig would be too busy cleaning to deal with a new committee or prospective employers that come knocking. "I don't think corporations are going to say we aren't interested because of how the books are stacked up or because there's peanut shells on the floor," observed Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne.

In the end, the aldermen heeded Gatsas' warning to delay forming the five-year plan committee.

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

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