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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Gatsas in Aruba, but he's on top of matters via phone

By TED SIEFER
City Hall

February 21. 2015 7:59PM


IT'S THAT time of year again: Mayor Ted Gatsas has made his annual pilgrimage to his happy place, Aruba. Of course he couldn't have planned it this way, but his departure last week came as things seemed to be coming apart at the seams in Manchester. There was the burst pipe that destroyed thousands of books at the West Side library; the emergency snow removal operations; the gas leak.

While few of his colleagues on the aldermanic board would begrudge the hard-working mayor for taking a vacation, the chairman of the board, Alderman-At-Large Dan O'Neil, was none too pleased to learn of it only when he inquired about said gas leak.

In an email Wednesday to the aldermen and department heads, O'Neil said Gatsas had not informed the board about his vacation plans.

It's not a moot point for O'Neil, who serves as acting mayor under the city charter during an absence of the elected one. In the email, O'Neil dutifully "offered my availability as chairman in absence of the mayor."

The thing is, Gatsas is not the kind of guy who disconnects his phone during vacations; he's available to department heads and to reporters. He told me that he thought he and O'Neil had touched base about his plans last week. But maybe not. "Either I didn't tell (him) or he missed it," he said.

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In the spirit of awards season, I nominate Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig for the most agonized vote of the past year. The big question at the aldermen's meeting on Tuesday was whether to approve a nearly $2 million bond to expand classroom space at the Manchester School of Technology.

Craig was one of the few aldermen to raise serious questions about the wisdom of spending so much money to improve a school that, for all the accolades it's received for its innovative approach to vocational education, was still just one school in a district with lots of challenges.

Craig, in case you haven't heard, is widely expected to announce a run for mayor in the near future, and the vote on Tuesday occurred in full view of members of the school board, parents and teachers - representatives of the natural constituency for a Democrat like Craig.

So it was with some suspense that Craig paused before casting her vote on the $1.8 million bond; authorizing the bond would require a 10-vote majority on a night when only 12 aldermen were present. Craig voted no.

Still, the bond squeaked by with 10 votes, for which MST supporters can perhaps thank Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur. Along with Craig, Levasseur asked some of the most critical questions of school officials about the MST project. Earlier in the evening, Levasseur voted against the bond, when just a simple majority was needed to move it forward. But when it came to time for the bond authorization vote, he voted yes.

Levasseur told me that he decided to support the bond once it was clear that a much larger bond, for about $6.5 million to build an addition onto MST, was rejected by the board.

"I had no problem cleaning up the inside of the school. I just don't want to see the expansion," Levasseur said, adding in reference to school officials, "I think they're going to thank us when they see their budget."

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Last month, the governor and top state Democratic leaders let it be known that they fully endorse a plan to build a commuter rail line running from Manchester to Nashua, and then on to Boston via the MBTA.

It's well known that Nashua officials are gung-ho on rail, but the silence had been deafening from elected leaders in the Queen City. This changed on Tuesday, when the aldermen's special committee on economic development held its first meeting to discuss the rail project.

It's safe to say that its chairman, Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau, who is active in the state Democratic party, is bullish on rail, and he touted some of the economic benefits that have been put forward, such as a 5 to 10 percent increase in property values in Manchester.

Still, Corriveau and other members panel agreed they needed a lot more information and input from state officials and other local stakeholders. "We're talking about the biggest economic development project we might see in our lifetime. I think it's only appropriate that we have a series of hearings on this," Corriveau said.

Of course Mayor Gatsas has been more attuned to the financial realities of taking on such a massive infrastructure project. The rail authority estimates the project will cost about $250 million, but Gatsas notes that the I-93 widening project started out with a price tag of $175 million. "We're now over $450 million," he said.

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It turns out a special election for the Ward 5 alderman's seat is going to happen sooner rather than later.

The seat, of course, became vacant with the sudden death of its longtime occupant, Ed Osborne, last month.

On Tuesday the board voted to direct the city clerk to schedule an election as soon as possible. And soon enough, the clerk's office designated a filing period for candidates: March 2, starting at 8 a.m., until Friday, March 13, at 5 p.m. The election will likely be held in May, with another to follow if a primary is needed.

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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