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Another View: How to improve Manchester's city charter in a few easy steps

November 26. 2012 6:53PM

The new Manchester Charter Commission will hold a meeting on Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. in City Hall to hear from the public. This meeting provides local citizens the opportunity to discuss their concerns about the structure of Manchester's government. It is not a meeting to complain about pothole repair or whether the assessors have overvalued your house. The commission's purpose is to examine the city charter to determine whether to recommend to voters revisions to the current charter, adoption of a new charter, or to leave the current charter in place with no changes.

The members of the last commission, which drafted the current city charter, were Republicans John Stephen, Brad Cook, Toni Pappas, Bob Shaw and Leona Dykstra, and Democrats Bob Baines, Steve Dolman, Mike Lopez and me. Despite the conflicting political ideologies of the very politically active members, partisan politics were never really an issue, and we became a cohesive group.

Over a few months we examined charters from some other municipalities, heard testimony from the public, department heads and elected officials, and carefully examined every provision of the charter. It was painstaking work, but well worth it. At the end of the process, eight of us agreed to recommend a new charter that we thought would be more modern and efficient (Bob Shaw was the lone holdout, as he thought there should be no changes). The voters adopted our charter.

That charter has worked well for 15 years, but there are some changes that can be made to make city government more transparent, accountable and responsive.

The current charter gives too much power to the mayor. Our idea was to make the mayor the chief executive officer, with the aldermen his or her board of directors. However, our structure allows the mayor to ignore the majority of the board too easily, as it takes 10 aldermen to override a mayoral veto. Putting it another way, the mayor needs to find only five of 14 aldermen to uphold his veto. By decreasing the veto override vote to nine aldermen, a mayor would be more likely to search for common ground with the aldermen.

We also made a mistake in making the mayor the school committee chairman; as an independently elected body, the committee should have the ability to choose its own chairman. Also, the chairman of the school committee should be the chief advocate for the school system, particularly when dealing with the school budget. The mayor has competing pressures and priorities that do not permit him or her to place the schools' needs first at all times. Since there should be communication between the board of mayor and aldermen and the school committee, the mayor should remain as a voting member. However, the chairman should be elected by the committee members, not imposed by the city charter.

For purposes of transparency, the charter should require all city and school district meetings, agendas and minutes to be posted on the city's website. Most are, but not all. This is 2012; a citizen should be able to go online to one location to learn what boards and committees are meeting when, and for what purpose.

Also to promote transparency, the charter should require at least 72 hours' prior notice and public posting before any vote on any matter by any city board, committee or commission, except in the event of an emergency. In the last few years, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has voted to merge departments and approve major contracts without any prior notice to the public, while the school board has held special meetings on less than 48 hours' notice. That is wrong.

Finally, the city's campaign finance laws need to be strengthened. The current charter states that the provisions of state statute regarding political expenditures and contributions shall apply to all municipal elections. However, the city clerk, with the advice of the city solicitor, determines the applicability of those laws, and the determination has been made that the state's contribution limits do not apply. As a result, Manchester has seen a growing number of $10,000 checks written to Queen City mayoral candidates, which is more than can be given to a presidential candidate.

The charter should be clarified to mandate that all state expenditure and contribution laws apply in Manchester, or we should adopt our own limits. Also, the provisions regarding the disclosure of financial interests should be strengthened so that elected officials disclose their assets or investments over a set dollar amount.

With this type of fine-tuning, the new charter commission can make Manchester's government more accountable and balanced, while using technology to make it more accessible.

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.

Politics Guest Commentary Manchester

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