Paul Feely's City Hall: The unintended consequences of smoking ban in Manchester parks
By PAUL FEELY
That smoking ban city aldermen passed earlier this month? Changes could already be on the horizon.
On Aug. 15 board members approved a six-month ban on smoking in five downtown city parks and public spaces - Veterans Memorial, Victory, Bronstein and Pulaski Parks, along with Stanton Plaza. Mayor Ted Gatsas proposed the six-month ban after several aldermen questioned whether the proposed ordinance is too broad, for example, forbidding someone to smoke a cigar on the Derryfield Country Club golf course.
Initially, violators are being issued warnings. But tickets and penalties will follow: a $50 fine for the first violation, $100 for the second, a mandatory appearance at District Court for the third, according to Assistant Police Chief Carlo Capano.
The ban involves any tobacco-related product, including snuff and chewing tobacco, electronic cigarettes and dissolvable tobacco products. It does not include any smoking-cessation product licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The ban took effect immediately - as did the law of unintended consequences, according to one alderman.
"Other neighborhood parks are taking the brunt of that action, as people have moved into those parks creating problems where they didn't exist previously," writes Ward 3 Alderman and board chair Pat Long in a letter to members of the Committee on Lands and Buildings.
Long is hoping committee members - and ultimately the full board - will reconsider how the ordinance was narrowed to include just five parks, and leave the original ordinance as intended - banning smoking in all city parks. And the golf course? Long didn't say.
"It is also my hope that while we pledge to monitor the success of this initiative over the next six months, we do not mandate a six-month expiration of the ordinance," writes Long. Rather, he would prefer to have board members leave the ordinance on the books "until there is a desire to repeal or amend the ban in the future."
The Aldermanic Committee on Lands and Buildings is scheduled to discuss Long's letter Monday at 4 p.m. at City Hall.
Anyone who attends or watches school board or aldermen meetings with regularity knows the public comment portions - where residents sign up to speak for three minutes or less on any topic - can last hours. And there is never any interaction between elected officials and the speakers; their comments are simply "taken under advisement."
Portsmouth City Council members made headlines last week when they voted to change the way they take public comments at meetings, alternating between a typical public comment session at one meeting a month, and a new "public dialogue session" at the next meeting. Council members typically meet twice a month.
Last week, Long congratulated his counterparts in Portsmouth on making the change, and is interested in overhauling how public comments are handled in Manchester.
"I agree that our policy of 'public comment' could use a major overhaul," said Long. "I think it's uncomfortable - I've been told so on numerous occasions - intimidating and non-satisfying to speak for three minutes with no dialogue back from the mayor and aldermen. Some who have spoken at public comment ask easily answered questions that do not get answered or legitimate concerns in my opinion that are not addressed."
Long said he would be interested in having at least one meeting a month where dialogue exists between the public and elected officials, on both the city and school side.
"I realize the time frame issues that may increase my time spent at a BMA meeting, however, I say so be it," said Long. "Any opportunity to communicate with the public is good communication, whether they're challenging my decisions or not. That's what public office entails."
Long said he is currently looking for a public space to hold these dialogue sessions "that doesn't have a 'court room' setting and can be informative and productive."
Mayor Ted Gatsas said he doesn't think any changes in how public comments are solicited are needed. He said going with a question and answer model could "make your meetings last seven hours," because each back-and-forth exchange session with someone could be lengthy.
"I think there's a public comment segment, three minutes where people can come in and speak - I think that's appropriate," said Gatsas. "If someone wants to call an alderman for a response on their own, outside of a meeting, that's certainly something that's available also. I think we're fine with the way we do it. People have their opportunity."
Fuming at City Hall
In case you think the controversy has died down about a 2015 rape at West High and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas' knowledge of same, stay tuned.
The scene was the last Manchester Board of Alderman meeting and Alderman-at-Large Dan O'Neil was frustrated about the furor over whether to refer two aldermen to the conduct board when the same panel balked on seeking an investigation into what Gatsas knew about the rape and what he did about it.
O'Neil voted with the 6-5 majority rejecting a conduct referral about Aldermen Ron Ludwig and Normand Gamache regarding their votes for a firefighter pay raise when they have sons on the force.
Gatsas fired at O'Neil, "Are you accusing me of covering up a rape?"
O'Neil returned with, "You failed to inform the community of a rape."
Gatsas: "And so did 14 other school committee members."
O'Neil: "But you had a responsibility as mayor. I'm going to stand up."
Then we had Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard on the Girard at Large radio program last week making clear that he told Gatsas right away about the incident.
"Did you tell him it was rape?" a caller named Sarah asked.
Willard answered, "Yeah, I was pretty clear about it when I first gave my first statement. Nothing has changed. Obviously, it was my obligation to tell the mayor and that's what I did.''
Later, Willard said he wasn't accusing Gatsas of being untruthful. He said the mayor had amended initial comments to say he had been told but failed to realize right away the severity of the assault.
With so many new candidates for city and school offices in this fall's elections, there are going to be a few, shall we say unpolished, mic-drop performances - especially in the early going.
Exhibit A came last week from Ward 11 hopeful Andre Rosa, who got a bit excited talking about the many ethical controversies that faced the city over the past year.
"I have had it up to here," Rosa said after a long pause.
And then at the conclusion, he thundered, "I'm sorry I am upset. We can do better."
Now this isn't Rosa's first rodeo. The Free State Project said he moved from California to New Hampshire to advance its anti-government views and ran in 2014 for a Ward 8 seat in the New Hampshire House.
A year later, he took on and lost a race to Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh.
The one-minute, 44-second tirade from Rosa can be viewed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ManchTV/, along with videos from other municipal candidates.
Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com.