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December 29. 2012 10:38PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: 2012 saw bid to let Hooksett, Candia join school board


 

The departure of a superintendent, the election of a Charter Commission, the arrest of an alderman and an earthquake. The year 2012 was an eventful one at City Hall. Let's take a brief jog down memory lane.

The year began with the presentation of a school budget that, for the first time, was limited by the voter-approved tax cap - and it set the stage for what proved to be the dominant issue of the year.

Superintendent Tom Brennan dutifully presented the capped budget of $152 million, while acknowledging that it fell short of the district's needs and would force mass layoffs. In order to limit the layoffs, Mayor Ted Gatsas sought health care concessions from the teachers union, which were ultimately rejected - and at the end the 2012 school year, out went close to 200 pink slips.

Still, no one quite seemed to expect what happened when the school year began in the fall. Many classes had more than 40 students, and there were complaints about shortages of desks and textbooks.

The spotlight was shined especially bright on these problems by Jim O'Connell, the Hillside Middle School parent and founder of the group Citizens for Manchester Schools. Media savvy and outspoken, O'Connell, along with other members of the parents group, would clash with the mayor repeatedly over school conditions.

In short order, parents in Hooksett and Candia joined the fray, and the towns' school boards took steps to sever the contract to send their kids to city high schools.

Through it all, Gatsas has remained defiantly upbeat about the schools, and he has pushed his own slate of reforms, including the creation of "virtual" classrooms, redistricting and longer school days.

As if the school board and mayor didn't have enough to deal with, Brennan announced July 31 that he would be stepping down at the end of the school year, citing in large part the strains of dealing with a contentious school board.

Brennan would join several high-level officials who took their leave this past year, some voluntarily, some otherwise.

Water Works Director Tom Bowen announced that he would be retiring, after 42 years at the agency (more on his tenure below). A couple of months ago, economic development chief Jay Minkarah stepped down, and his seemingly hasty departure has triggered on ongoing debate over whether the city should refill the post and the overall purpose of the office.

Then there was the arrest in July of Russell Ouellette, the Ward 11 alderman, on sexual assault charges stemming from a late-night encounter with a woman he met at a bar. Ouellette stepped down from the board and would later plead guilty to lesser assault charges.

A special election was held to fill the Ward 11 seat, and the winner was former firefighter Normand Gamache. So far, he's been an inconspicuous presence on the board.

In addition to the aldermanic race, Manchester residents on Election Day also had to contend with the Charter Commission ballot. Nine members - out of 62 candidates - were elected to the commission, which is now undertaking the task of proposing changes to the city's basic governing document.

The commission elected Jerome Duval, former alderman and school board member, as its chairman and Rich Girard, a former alderman and current radio host, as its vice chairman. At its final meeting of the year, the commission got an earful from Mayor Gatsas and three predecessors. (More on this below.)

The year 2012 also saw construction finally begin on the Hackett Hill fire station, after the aldermen spent a couple of years trying to cement a deal with a private developer with the goal getting the station built in exchange for city-owned land.

Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau probably received more attention in 2012 than he ever has before, much of it focusing on the declining amount of assistance his office has paid out while his salary, along with those of others in the office, has swelled.

Another controversy burned brightly - but briefly - in August, when local members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told the school board that there was systemic discrimination against minority students and English learners. The presentation was cut short by Mayor Gatsas, who was angered by the lack of data to support the charges. The group hasn't been heard from since.

Last but certainly not least, the city municipal complex is rapidly nearing completion, "on time and under budget," as the mayor is fond of saying. The new year kicks off with the opening of the new central police station, complete with its avant-garde window arrangement.

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Among the last City Hall meetings of the year was the Charter Commission session Dec. 19 - and it featured an all-star panel of mayors past and present.

Mayor Gatsas was joined by former Mayors Robert Baines, Ray Wieczorek and Sylvio Dupuis in testifying before the panel.

The mayors weighed in on possible changes to city government, but the most notable may have been the first one proposed by Gatsas: Give Hooksett and Candia one seat each on the school board.

Gatsas says the idea has been around for a while, and he insists it was not prompted by the grievances those towns have forcefully expressed about conditions in the high schools.

As for other changes the commission might be considering, Gatsas told the commission to keep it simple. "It's got to be changes around the edges," he told me. "Change anything about the tax cap and that'll just be voted down."

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There have been few, if any, employees who have worked in city government as long as Water Works Director Bowen. He will be retiring at the end of January after 42 years at the agency. While complex infrastructure systems rarely generate big headlines, it's worth noting that, under Bowen, the Water Works has gained national recognition for the quality and taste of the water it conveys through city taps.

Bowen started in May 1970 as an engineer, and in 1992 he became director of the agency, which provides drinking water to about 160,000 people in Manchester and neighboring towns via the Lake Massabesic reservoir.

Bowen says he is proudest of his involvement in the construction of the water treatment plant on Lake Shore Road in the early 1970s and its rehabilitation in the 2000s.

"Water quality goes hand in hand with the treatment facility," he said. "Manchester has excellent water quality. It starts with having a good program in place to protect Lake Massabesic and the improvements that were completed in 2006, which will serve the community for at least another 20 years."

The Manchester Water Works was ranked among the top five water systems in the country for water taste at the 2011 American Water Works Annual Conference. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the Water Works its highest ranking for water quality.

Bowen spreads the credit around.

"I think we've always had great support from the commission that oversees the Water Works," he said. "I'd be remiss if I did not say that we've always had very good people there, from the meter readers right through to the administrative staff and engineers. It's been a very dedicated group of people, and I really enjoyed my career there."

As for his plans after his last day, Jan. 31, Bowen says he plans to spend more time at the beach with his wife. He is a water guy, after all.

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


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