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October 26. 2014 12:27PM

City hall: Police officer residency issue will have to be dealt with


 

“THE BRAWL at City Hall.” For the moment at least this seemed it could’ve been the headline out of the aldermen’s meeting on Tuesday. Things got tense real quick as Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur began to question Police Chief David Mara on recently released numbers showing that a solid majority of police officers and supervisors live outside the city, seemingly in violation of residency provisions in their union contracts. Since the issue and the personalities involved tend to stir intense emotions, let’s start with a recap of what led to the confrontation, with the benefit of replay.

Roll the tape: Levasseur asks Mara if any effort was made to determine the residency of the 12 officers who recently received promotions.

Mara responds no.

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long interjects with a “parliamentary inquiry.” He says the residency issue is one other unions face and, with nearly all union contracts expiring, it should be dealt with when the board meets to discuss negotiations. He moves for a vote on Ward 1 Alderman

Joyce Craig’s initial motion, to refer the matter to negotiations.

Levasseur, his voice rising, insists that the residency policy should be discussed in public.

Mayor Ted Gatsas assures Levasseur he will allow him to continue. He then calls on Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann, who is an ally of Levasseur. Hirschmann offers a passionate argument in support of residency, pointing to the example of Fire Chief James Burkush. “He lives here among us. He’s not just an employee; he’s part of the fabric of the community,” he says.

(Mara, as is well known, lives in Bedford.) Gatsas then calls on Craig, who requests to “move the question.”

Levasseur interjects. “I have one more question I’d like to ask if I may, and then I’ll allow the question to be moved since I brought it forward,” he says. “You guys can beat me up and bully me all you want, I don’t care… I live in the city. I grew up here. I have my real estate here,” Levasseur says, his voice rising amid grumbling from Long and Mara. “I don’t care if you don’t like the questions. I‘m on the floor.”

Mara says, “I’d like to mention…” Levasseur cuts him off: “I don’t care.I just want … ” Craig, responding to the rising temperature, makes a non-debatable “motion to table” and Long seconds.

Mara, apparently believing the issue is over, rises from the speakers table, as does Assistant Chief Nick Willard.

“Getting up and walking out, real professional,” Levasseur says. “You don’t live in this city, so you don’t care.”

Gatsas calls for a vote on the motion to table and it passes.

Mara says he’d like to address the board; Gatsas implores him to let it go; “Chief, it’s over. It’s tabled,” he says.

Mara continues, “As a department head, I feel I have the right to be saying this ... I’m not one of his employees at his restaurant to be yelled at.”

Levasseur: “This is getting outrageous. Go sit down and go home.”

Mara: “I’d like this referred to the conduct committee.”

Gatsas’ gavel comes and he calls for a recess.

Levasseur tells Mara: “You can’t handle any criticism at all.”

Long yells to Levasseur: “Yeah, you handle it real well.”

Both aldermen make their way to the anteroom, and other aldermen follow with an eye toward making sure things don’t escalate any further.

Fade to black.

Depending on one’s perspective, the episode revealed Levasseur’s extreme and unreasonable hostility toward Mara; or the chief showed himself to be thinskinned. Or both.

At least one thing is certain: There was little public discussion of an issue that is certainly of public concern. Whether the residency issue comes off the table at another meeting remains to be seen, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Later in the week, I asked Craig why she felt referring the issue to negotiations was the right move.

“Because this was part of the contract and the contracts are opening up,” she said. “If it’s something the aldermen want to keep in the contract or some aldermen want to take out, that’s something that should be talked about in nonpublic and discussed at the right time in negotiations.”

Does she think having police live in the city is a good thing? “I think there’s a benefit to having as many city employees live in Manchester as possible,” she said, while adding that she questioned how enforceable the current residency provisions are.

As for her thoughts on what transpired at Tuesday’s meeting, Craig offered what may be as close to a consensus view of the board as possible. “I’m sorry it took place,” she said. “I think it’s not how I hope our city is portrayed or viewed.”

One response police officials have had to the questions about residency is to note that other unions have similar provisions in their contracts, a view expressed by Long at Tuesday’s meeting. In fact, it appears only one other city union has residency language in its contract: the firefighters.

So how many of them comply with the contract? The vast majority, according to data compiled by the city’s Human Resources Department.

To be sure, the residency provision in the firefighters contract is not as rigid as that of the police. It requires that all members of the union reside within a 15-mile radius of the city. But 102 out of 204 members of the union (50 percent), which includes supervisors, technicians and dispatchers, live in Manchester. In the case of the police, about 29 percent of the force lives in the city; under their contracts, 50 percent of officers and 60 percent of supervisors are supposed to reside here.

Most of the other members of the firefighters union live in surrounding towns, with Bedford, Goffstown and Hooksett being the most popular. This said, there are some members who reside outside the 15-mile radius; five live in Concord, for example, and a few live in Nashua.

As scheduled, the aldermen held nonpublic negotiations meeting on Wednesday, and the takeaway is that they’ve decided to seek professional help. The board voted to hire a full-time negotiator — with a salary said to be in the range of $79,000-$95,000 with benefits — to handle talks with the multiple city unions with contracts set to expire next June.

The decision is an indication of just how high stakes the contracts are for the city; even Gatsas, who in the past has eagerly taken up the role of negotiator-in-chief, was said to back re-establishing the negotiator post. Let’s also not forget that 2015 is a municipal election year; it’s not a great time to be viewed by unions as a heavy. The vote for the position was 8-2; Hirschmann and Levasseur cast the no votes.

“Another bureaucrat hired.” That was Hirschmann’s takeaway.

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Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter@tbsreporter.



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