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April 19. 2014 11:15PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: No power play in aldermanic chambers, mayor in good spirits


 

There came a moment late in the aldermen's meeting Tuesday night when Alderman Dan O'Neil, who, as chairman, was running the show in the absence of Mayor Ted Gatsas, implored his colleagues to ease up on the motions. It's tempting to conclude that it took standing in the mayor's shoes and dealing with his fractious colleagues to make O'Neil think better of assuming the office himself.

A week ago, O'Neil seemed poised for a power play. He expressed his "frustration" with the lack of communication with the mayor or his staff since Gatsas underwent heart bypass surgery on April 8. He noted that state law required that the board chairman assume mayoral powers in the event of the mayor's "absence or disability."

But the matter never came up at Tuesday's meeting. A more likely explanation than fatigue is that O'Neil finally had a chance to talk to the mayor. As anyone who's spoken to him recently can attest, Gatsas is in good spirits, and he has no intention of easing up on the reins of power. The only thing he might be easing up on, as he told me last week, is his visits to Cremeland.

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In the that-was-quick department, Alderman Bill Barry was before the Administration Committee on Tuesday to present his proposal for a comprehensive policy on how the city deals with right-to-know requests.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that a judge ruled in the lawsuit brought by Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur against radio host Rich Girard and the city, alleging they had overstepped the bounds of the Right to Know Law in seeking and giving up large volumes of Levasseur's email. The judge threw out the suit, but not without making some points in Levasseur's favor, and several found their way into Barry's proposal, which runs 12 pages.

Among its provisions are a chain of command for responding to right-to-know requests; a disclaimer to be posted on city emails and on the form for sending email through the city website that the communications may be deemed public records; and language that calls for redacting personal information in communications from constituents (which was mentioned in the Levasseur ruling).

But the most significant part of the policy may be that it proposes charging requestors for electronic records.

The current charge for a paper "copy" is $1 for the first page and 50 cents for each page thereafter. The city had not been charging for electronic records, the format by which much of government business is transacted these days.

The policy makes it explicit that a "copy" would apply to both paper or electronic documents, including email. "A copy of an original email record, requested in electronic form, shall constitute one record and the applicable copy fee shall apply," the policy states.

Email has been at the heart of several right-to-know requests this year, from this newspaper and in the Levasseur lawsuit, which alleged that Girard had requested more than 11,000 pages of emails.

At 50 cents a page, the fees proposed in the new policy would add up quick.

Both Levasseur and Girard weighed in at the committee meeting.

Girard said the interpretation of "copy" was off base, since an email never existed in any form other than bits, no copying is necessary to furnish it.

More broadly, he said, the policy "poses an unnecessary burden on people who make requests and could create a bottleneck at the clerk's office."

Levasseur, not surprisingly, had a different take. "I was amazed at the work that's gone into this. At least we have a policy drafted, where there are fees," he said. "The problem before was departments were often spinning their wheels."

Girard requested that the policy be tabled to allow for more time for review - and the committee did just that.

Not sure who gets to claim victory on that one.

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In case you haven't heard, the city's in a bit of a financial crunch. So it was on Monday that a somewhat familiar idea was again debated by the school board: putting busing out to bid.

For more than 40 years, the district has paid the Manchester Transit Authority to bus its students. But school board member Art Beaudry said not putting a busing contract to bid not only violated the district's procurement code - requiring bids for contracts more than $25,000 - but also perhaps squandered possible savings.

"We did this with Aramark," Beaudry said, referring to the district's custodial contractor. "We ended up saving $300,000, plus we got better service. It is healthy to go out to bid. It's a shame this board has not pursued it."

MTA Executive Director Mike Whitten is a mild-mannered guy, but he was mildly freaking out about the prospect of school bus service going out to bid. Busing students, it should be noted, is the authority's greatest revenue stream, bringing in around $3 million a year, far more than it gets from bus fares.

Another financial consideration for the district is that the mayor has proposed a nearly $900,000 bond, to be covered by the district, to replace 10 school buses.

Whitten said the board only had to look to neighboring communities, such as Nashua, to see what would likely happen if busing were put out to bid. One of the big contractors would put in a lower bid than the MTA could, and in subsequent years it would jack up the rates, and the district would be stuck with a bus service without the accountability of a government entity.

"That's why we've been so vocal about cautioning the board about what looks like a short-term benefit that will have very real, lasting implications for the district," Whitten said.

Assistant Superintendent Karen Burkush also noted that the last time the board considered outsourcing busing several years ago, an independent analyst determined that the district was better off sticking with the MTA.

In the end, the board voted against putting the contract out to bid, but only by a two-vote margin, 8-6.

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. Reach him at tsiefer@unionleader.com and follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.


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