Ted Siefer's City Hall: Gatsas upset over a debate invitation that wasn't
On Tuesday, the campaign of mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold sent out a press release stating, "I applaud the other candidates in the race for agreeing to participate in a debate leading up to the city's Primary Election in September."
It seemed pretty straightforward at first blush, but Mayor Ted Gatsas was seeing red. It turns out Gatsas was never asked to participate in the debate, and by the end of the week the Democratic alderman was fending off charges that his campaign was engaging in dirty tricks.
Arnold's release was notable for its details. The debate would feature him, Gatsas and Glenn R.J. Ouellette, the activist - or gadfly, depending on your perspective. It would take place Sept. 11 from 7 to 9 p.m, a week before the Sept. 17 primary. "Republican at-large Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur and Democratic state Rep. Bob Backus are co-sponsoring the debate during their respective Wednesday evening television shows on Manchester Public Television," the release explained - and the debate would be moderated by Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi.
This reporter was briefly duped into thinking the debate was a done deal, even though those details were puzzling. Why would Gatsas agree to a debate co-sponsored by Levasseur, who seems to be his personal kryptonite, or one moderated by Ambrogi, who is backing his opponent?
The answer, of course, is that Gatsas hadn't come close to signing on.
"I was never asked. None was ever scheduled, and I would never participate in a debate on September 11th," Gatsas told me. "I wouldn't only not debate on September 11th, I wouldn't do anything political."
At the risk of understatement, Gatsas was upset.
So, was Arnold engaging in dirty tricks or, at the very least, baiting the mayor?
"It was my understanding that all the candidates were aware of the debate and all the candidates agreed to participate," he said.
Upon learning that Gatsas would not be participating, Arnold said, "I think it's unfortunate for the voters, the taxpayers and the citizens of Manchester, who deserve a fair vetting of the issues and to hear the views of anyone seeking the office of mayor."
Arnold said his "understanding" that all the candidates were on board came from people at last week's PeopleFest event at Veterans Memorial Park who heard the mayor express his willingness to have a primary debate.
"I guess it was their misunderstanding," he said of those people, whom he said he could not name.
Gatsas said the only debate he was committed to at this point was the one in October that would be sponsored by the chamber of commerce - "if I'm fortunate enough to make it past the primary."
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One of the more hotly contested races in the primary election is for the Ward 11 alderman seat. Incumbent Phil Greazzo is being challenged by Jane Beaulieu, a longtime activist and current state representative, and Bill Barry, who made a respectable run for Hillsborough County sheriff in 2012.
Greazzo was given some ammunition when it was revealed last month that Beaulieu had presided over the city's Conservation Commission as its chairman for the past year while the terms of most of its commissioners had expired. Greazzo also noted that the commission was not keeping minutes from its meetings.
Since then, Mayor Gatsas has nominated a new set of commissioners, and they're expected to be confirmed at the aldermen's next meeting. Beaulieu won't be among them; after having served on the commission for nearly two decades, she's term-limited out.
Still, Greazzo said the whole episode raises questions about Beaulieu's leadership. "She's been involved in other meetings that require quorums. You can't expect someone who wants to be alderman to not learn that by now, given the number of years she's been at it," he said.
Beaulieu insisted that it was up to the mayor and aldermen to appoint and renew the terms of commissioners. "They dropped the ball," she said. "What can I say? We did not know. We're a volunteer board."
There is agreement between Beaulieu and Greazzo on one point: where the concerns about the commission first came from - the chairman of the Madison Way condominium association, a subdivision off Candia Road on the East Side.
The association had been before the Conservation Commission with a request to remove trees in the subdivision. The chairman subsequently removed more than 100 trees, far more than the number Beaulieu says the commission supported.
"It was basically a clear-cut," Beaulieu said.
Of course, Greazzo has a different take on the grievances expressed by the association
"Their thing was that the commission was not legitimate, and it's giving us orders," he said.
Beaulieu said she will continue to raise questions about what she says was the leveling of 200 trees.
"It doesn't matter whether I'm on the Conservation Commission or not," she said. "It's still something I can pursue."
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Monday's Board of School Committee meeting - the last before the first day of school this Wednesday - was an eventful one. The board was presented with preliminary class size projections, showing about a dozen high school classes with more than 30 students and close to 100 middle school classes over the state limit.
The board wrestled with the new start and stop times for the school day and the possibility - raised alarmingly by principals - that there wouldn't be enough staff to supervise students after the final bell.
The board also agreed to give the new superintendent, Debra Livingston, the authority to make spot hires of teachers, bypassing the board's normal approval process. Livingston noted that the board had granted the superintendent similar power before the 2011 school year.
The request was an indication that the schools' staffing needs have not been entirely settled. And the board's willingness to grant Livingston the authority, with little debate, reflected both an acknowledgement that the opening days of the school year in Manchester can be chaotic - and a desire by the board to cut the new chief some slack.
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.