Sixty-two seek voice in charter's future
As if voters won't have enough choices to make when they go to the polls Tuesday - President, congressmen, governor, legislators, amendments to the state constitution - city residents will also get to choose among the 62 candidates for the Charter Commission. And the commission, in case you haven't heard, is kind of a big deal.
Re-established every 10 years, the commission will propose changes to the city charter, Manchester's basic governing structure.
It has been referred to as the municipal version of the Constitutional Convention. Voters can choose up to nine candidates for the nine-member panel.
So what's a candidate to do to stand out from the crowd? Clearly, many of them will be relying on name recognition. The ballot is full of familiar and venerable names in Manchester politics, including Democratic state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, Republican Sen. Tom DeBlois, school board member Dave Wihby, former Alderman Mike Lopez and former longtime school board member Katharine Labanaris.
Then there's Rich Girard. The former alderman and onetime mayoral candidate has the benefit of also being a local media personality as host of the "Girard at Large'' morning radio show - and now of a show of the same name on Manchester Public Television. He's made no secret of his candidacy on the air; he has ads on the "Girard at Large'' website that link to his Girard for Charter website.
Is Girard wielding an unfair advantage when it comes to the public airwaves?
There is, after all, an FCC rule that says when an on-air employee of a broadcaster runs for office, it must provide equal time to other candidates. For Girard, that could have meant ceding 180 hours of airtime.
Girard says he looked into this. He's not an employee of the station that broadcasts his show; he buys the time, so he's essentially an advertiser, he says. And, in any case, Girard has extended an open invitation to any charter candidate to come on his show, and close to a dozen have taken him up on the offer, including those with very different political stripes.
So what makes Girard, who is often sleep-deprived as it is, run?
He lists three priorities for the Charter Commission: a return to partisan elections; protecting the tax cap; and making the school district a department, as it was when he served as a mayoral aide. "It was better then," he says. "Contrary to the claims that it would interfere with the school board, I see it as a way to integrate the functions - the technology, the human resources - and to get rid of things that don't make sense, like charge backs (the practice of city departments billing the school district for services provided)."
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Schools could very well be at the center of a great tug of war, depending on who gets elected to the commission.
Rather than return schools to city control, some charter candidates want to give the school board more power, to give it budget-making and taxing authority, as is the case in Concord.
D'Allesandro, for one, would support such a system. "Fundamental to the economic viability of Manchester is a quality education system, and anything that takes away from that diminishes the city's ability to be a great city," he said.
Several of the charter candidates are affiliated with Citizens for Manchester Schools, the group formed this year to advocate for more school funding in response to classroom crowding and other problems. Among the candidates are Nick Want, David Scannell and Kevin Phelan.
Other candidates might be described as budget-minded technocrats, such as Wihby and Elias "Skip" Ashooh, the man who spearheaded the development of the civic center in the 1990s, which would become Verizon Wireless Arena.
"I don't think (the commission) is the right place to address more funding for the schools," Ashooh said. "You have to look at structural factors of where the money comes from. The majority of the burden is going to come from residential taxpayers."
Wihby, for his part, has suggested that the school budgeting process can be streamlined, without fundamentally changing the relationship between the school and aldermanic boards.
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There are of course plenty of other issues on the minds of Charter Commission candidates. Returning to partisan municipal elections; eliminating the at-large aldermen and school board seats; getting rid of the pricey perk of health care benefits for the aldermen and school board members; making the welfare commissioner an appointed department head rather than an elected officer. As this newspaper has reported, the current system has allowed the salary of Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau to rise to $113,000, far more than that of the mayor or any other elected official in the city.
It's worth noting that many of these changes were proposed by the last Charter Commission, in 2003. Voters ultimately rejected the changes after a broadbased campaign against it.
The same could happen this time around, warned Lopez, if the commission takes on third-rail issues, such as altering the voter-approved tax cap. "If they try to take that out of the charter, you're wasting nine months. The people won't vote for it," he said.
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Ted Siefer may be reached at email@example.com.