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January 02. 2013 11:50PM

Manchester Charter Commission sees education as first priority

MANCHESTER - The Charter Commission has placed education first on a list of seven subject areas it plans to address over the coming weeks.

The nine-member panel voted Wednesday to divide its meetings into the seven subject areas, devoting public hearings to each. In addition to education, the topics are: elections and campaign reform, fiscal or budget matters, elected and appointed officials, land use and planning, city employee compensation, and administrative matters, which is intended as a catch-all for subjects not covered in the other categories.

The first topic will be education, to be taken up at next week's meeting, with the public invited to speak at the following meeting.

"I think we should dive right in," said Jerome Duval, commission chairman, on the decision to make education the lead item of the panel's agenda.

Duval said after the meeting that the topic areas weren't meant to be restrictive and that having work sessions precede the public comment meetings was meant to promote citizen involvement.

"We're hoping to produce greater public turnout," he said.

So far, meetings of the Charter Commission have been sparsely attended.

Elected by voters in November, the commission will spend the next several months discussing and proposing changes to the city charter, its basic governing document. Those changes would go before voters next November.

Issues around education, such as the authority of the school board and how the district's budget is established, have dominated discussion leading up to the election of the commission and since.

Education, however, is not the only concern of the commission.

At the commission's previous meeting last month, Mayor Ted Gatsas and three former mayors offered a range of ideas and advice.

Commissioner Skip Ashooh said the panel should take seriously Gatsas' suggestion that elected officials fill out a form disclosing potential conflicts of interest before voting on such matters.

"I was surprised to learn that nowhere in municipal government is there a disclosure requirement," Ashooh said. "I sit on a number of boards, and I have to sign a disclosure every year."

Gatsas also suggested that the commission concern itself with practical changes "around the edges," rather than big, hot-button issues, such as altering or eliminating the tax cap.

At its Wednesday meeting, the commission voted to have its legal counsel determine whether it would be possible to break up charter changes on the ballot, rather than having voters approve or reject them in their entirety, as has been the case.

Commissioner John Clayton noted that raising the oft-mentioned proposal of raising the mayor's salary would probably be rejected by voters. "If they were to put the kibosh on it, all the changes would be out," he said. "It might be good to find out if can we do this in a more piecemeal way."

For next week's work session on education, the commissioners anticipated inviting Superintendent Thomas Brennan, the district's business administrator and the vice chairman of the school board.

The commission plans to hold meetings at City Hall every Wednesday.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com.

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