Ted Siefer's City Hall: Levasseur denies conflict of interest; feathers could fly
LAST WEEK in this space, it was reported that the latest battleground in the epic battle between Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur and the Manchester Police Department could be the city's shut down of convenience stores alleged to have sold "spice," the "not-for-human-consumption" synthetic marijuana product that's sent numerous people to the hospital in recent weeks.
Well, if you're keeping score - and plenty of people in this city are - you could say Levasseur won the latest round. But now new questions are being raised about the alderman's involvement in the case.
On Monday, a judge concluded that the city - acting through the clerk's office and based on an investigation by the police - was hasty in pulling the business license of TN Gas and Convenience, represented by Levasseur, Esq. Then, on Tuesday, the aldermen's Administration Committee voted to reinstate TN's license and those of the other two stores, after the owners made assurances that they would no longer sell "spice" products.
Levasseur represented TN Gas before the committee, and his appearance prompted its chairman, Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, to ask Levasseur if he was there as an alderman or an attorney.
Levasseur replied that he was both, while identifying the proprietor, Taif Nouri, as his constituent.
Not long after the hearing, cries of foul emerged from certain quarters. The allegation was that Levasseur had violated conflict-of-interest rules for lawyers who also serve as elected officials. Members of the police department made similar grumblings the last time Levasseur represented people with grievances against the MPD (Levasseur, you may recall, was the pro-bono attorney for the kid who was busted in a much publicized police sting in a mall parking lot - and got the charges dismissed).
As Levasseur's detractors have pointed out, the state's rules of professional conduct for lawyers contain a section concerning the conduct of "lawyer-officials" - lawyers who hold public office.
Part of Rule 1.11A states that no "lawyer-official shall ... participate in any hearing, debate, discussion or vote, or in any manner otherwise attempt to influence the outcome of a matter in which the lawyer-official has an interest."
Later in the week, Levasseur told me that the grumbling about conflict of interest was so much sour grapes.
He noted that the "interest" referred to in the rule meant a "direct, personal and pecuniary" - financial - interest, and he maintained that he did not have such a relationship with Nouri, nor did he have a vote on the committee.
"Only the members of the Committee on Administration can vote. I am not on that committee and was told I could not have any input into re-licensing any affected business," he said. "I did not charge any money, nor will I. I bet the losers never would have said anything about a conflict if I had lost. The city acted like a big bully. I despise bullies."
The head of the police officers union, who has raised the conflict-of-interest issue in the past, did not get back to me by deadline.
Whether there are any consequences for Levasseur will depend on whether an official complaint is lodged with the New Hampshire Attorney Discipline System.
If an investigation determines that the attorney rules were violated, punishment could range from a reprimand to a license suspension of up to six months (a longer suspension could only be ordered by the state Supreme Court). I'm sure there are certain people in this city who would view such an outcome as poetic justice.
After two years of clucking and squawking, it looks like a chicken ordinance is finally coming home to roost.
The aldermen are set to give final approval to the regulation at their meeting Sept. 2, after the Committee on Accounts on Tuesday voted to recommend officially enrolling the ordinance.
To refresh your memory, the ordinance that was passed by a majority of the aldermen will allow up to six hens on parcels at least a half-acre in size, or 21,780 square feet.
But the regulation has had vocal detractors who have pointed out the vast majority of properties in Manchester are much smaller than a half-acre.
Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne, who is typically wary of potential neighborhood nuisances, has emerged as the chickens' best friend.
"You might as well keep them on the outskirts and nevermind the inner part of the city, the area I'm in," he said at the committee meeting Tuesday. "I used to live with thousands of them, so I know about this." There's an image for you.
Supporters of the proposed ordinance have noted that people living on smaller lots can still go to the Zoning Board and seek a variance to have chickens - although they'll have to pay the $275 fee, and fretful neighbors could turn out in opposition.
City Planning Director Leon LaFreniere said the ordinance was a first step toward a more chicken-friendly city. "The regulations are more restrictive today," he said. "We're moving in a direction that will allow us to see if this works better."
Just over a month into the new fiscal year there is good news and bad news.
As Finance Director Bill Sanders told the Accounts Committee on Tuesday, it looks like the surplus for the 2014 fiscal year, which ended June 30, will be quite a bit larger than anticipated: close to $1.1 million.
Sanders said this windfall could again be attributed to auto registrations. But this was the silver lining. For the new fiscal year, revenues are $150,000 lower than were a year ago (not exactly an auspicious start, but also not cause for great concern at this point).
Auto registrations have been strong for the past couple of years, and residents are only going to buy so many new cars.
As Sanders put it, "We expect some taper on that in the coming months."
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.