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Manchester Charter Commission recommendation: Appoint city's welfare commissioner

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 13. 2013 11:37PM

MANCHESTER - The Charter Commission has voted to recommend making the welfare commissioner an appointed rather than an elected position.

The panel voted for the proposal at a busy Wednesday meeting that also saw the defeat of several ideas that had been hotly debated over the past weeks. The commissioners rejected making the school district a city department; removing the mayor from the school board; and returning to partisan city elections.

Several city officials, including current Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau, have acknowledged that is the position is an outlier in city government, since it's the only elected post that functions like a full-time department head and is governed by the city's system of annual raises.

Under that system, Martineau, who has held the office for a decade, has become the highest paid elected officer in the city, making $113,000 a year.

Further distinguishing it from other elected positions, it's the only one with posted requirements for education and training.

"I do know we are fortunate that the current commissioner has the skills to run the department," city Human Resources Director Jane Gile told the panel. "That said, does that mean someone else could be elected (without any of those qualifications) to do it?"

The vote on Wednesday asked whether the current elected status of the position should be maintained. The vote was 6-3, with Commissioners Jerome Duval, Mike Lopez, John Clayton, Skip Ashooh, Lou D'Allesandro and Christine Martin voting no. Commissioners Rich Girard, Nick Pappas and Will Infantine voted yes.

The commission intends to further refine the proposal for changing the position, including how its salary will be determined.

It will join a slate of ideas to be presented at a public hearing March 27.

The commission voted also 6-3 to maintain the current system of nonpartisan city elections.

Commissioner Girard made the proposal to return to party-based elections, which voters ended in 1996 by approving the Charter Commission changes that year.

Girard pointed to data provided by the City Clerk's Office indicating that voter participation in city elections has steadily dropped, from 56 percent in 1999 to 28 percent in 2011. At the same time, voter participation in state elections rose.

Party affiliation "is informative to the public," Girard said, adding, "how can this be a panacea at the city level when it's not entertained at any other level of government?"

Commissioner Mike Lopez, however, questioned whether the decline in voter participation was attributable to nonpartisan elections.

"People vote for the person they think does a good job, and if you don't do a good job, then they vote you out of office," he said. "We don't have problems with older people voting. It's the younger people... The way our country has been, people are disgusted with politicians."

The commission also voted 6-3 to maintain the autonomy of the school district, effectively ending a debate that has consumed considerable time and energy on the panel. Claiming it would increase efficiency, a contingent of commissioners had advocated again making the district a city department. The vote followed the same breakdown as the welfare post question.

By a more narrow 5-4 margin, the commission voted to maintain the mayor's chairman role on the school board.

Supporters of maintaining the current system argued that having the mayor on the board was important for "checks and balances."

Opponents of the current system said it gives the mayor the ability to dominate the board. "This may be seen as checks and balances under another system, but not under democracy," Commissioner D'Allessandro said.

The question put to the commissioners was whether the current system should stay the same. Voting yes were Commissioners Girard, Pappas, Infantine, Ashooh and Lopez. Voting no were D'Allesandro, Duval, Clayton and Martin.

The commission has indicated that additional actions could be taken on the proposals before it finalizes the ballot it sends to Concord next month.

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