CITY ELECTIONS will be held in Manchester in the next several weeks. The primary will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 17, followed by the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
If these elections are true to recent form, we can expect a minuscule turnout in September and only a slightly better turnout in November. In 2011, only 4,868 people voted in the September primary, despite citywide primaries for alderman-at-large and welfare commissioner.
By comparison, more than 5,200 people voted in Ward 1 alone in the presidential election just one year later. In the 2011 general election, there were 14,290 votes in the mayor's race, in comparison to more than 51,000 citywide votes in the 2012 presidential election.
One reason for low turnout is lack of contests. The only citywide primary election is a three-way mayoral race. The candidates are incumbent Mayor Ted Gatsas, Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold and past candidate Glenn Ouellette, who finished fourth in the 2009 primary. Four wards do not have any other primary contests. Unless Gatsas and Arnold make a real effort to get their supporters out in September, it is likely that the turnout will be similar to 2011.
The lack of candidates in both the primary and general elections is unfortunate, as there are a lot of issues to debate in Manchester. The city has a lot to offer, with its arts, history and culture, increasing numbers of college students, a vibrant downtown entertainment area and an increasing diversity in our neighborhoods that will keep us from becoming stagnant. The public schools do a good job, with high school graduates being admitted to the most competitive colleges.
However, lately it seems like things have gone topsy turvy. The continued drain of tuition students from the school district and ongoing overcrowding issues at some city schools have badly damaged the school district's reputation. That is bad for our future, as parents will not want to live in a city if they think the schools are not good.
On the development side, there are a growing number of empty storefronts, including three supermarkets, one Lowe's and assorted smaller retail spaces at strip centers. Crime is an issue, including a rash of burglaries over the summer, shootings, stabbings and the largest heroin bust in the city's history.
There also is way too much drama at City Hall. Even code enforcement is a political issue. Most cities congratulate inspectors who put public safety first and close down a facility with a dozen violations. But not Manchester. Here, Mayor Gatsas chastised inspectors, telling them that they need department head approval before issuing cease-and-desist orders. You would have thought it was the inspector who had done something wrong, not the owner who had improper plumbing and expanded a deck area without a permit.
Questions of possible intervention in code enforcement by Mayor Gatsas also came up with respect to a restaurant owned by Alderman Joseph Levasseur. Levasseur said the mayor paved the way for his reopening; the mayor said he did not ask for special treatment, which led Levasseur to say well, maybe not. Whether Mayor Gatsas pressured inspection officials or not, it did not help him with Levasseur, who, in a recent email posted on the Internet by a local radio host, referred to the mayor as a "fat piece of shot." I feel a certain sympathetic but proud kinship with Mayor Gatsas, as about 10 years ago I was the first person Levasseur publicly called fat.
Calling the mayor a "fat piece of shot" generally would be news, but Levasseur's claim that Manchester police have been bullying him has stolen all the attention. To my knowledge, he hasn't called any police officers fat yet, but probably it is just a matter of time. This being Manchester, it is hard to predict Levasseur's attacks on the mayor and the police (three other aldermen have disputed Levasseur's version of events) will hurt or help the alderman in his reelection efforts, or cost him support from the local Republican committee.
In short — not shot — all of this is taking a toll on the reputation of our fair city. If the drama and negative press does not stop, businesses and newcomers will look to move to communities outside the city.
In the few days remaining before the primary, and the few weeks left before the general election, the voters need to pay attention to these elections. We need to demand a healthy debate about our city's future and insist that our elected officials move our city forward. But just as our candidates have a responsibility to have that debate, so too do we have a responsibility to show up and vote.
Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.