Thursday, October 18, 2007

In at-large City Council race, it’s insiders vs. newcomers

This year’s at-large Council race is shaping up to be an interesting one, pitting four relatively popular community leaders, who happen to be male, against two female newcomers.

The six people running for the two open at-large seats are Merwyn Bagan, Stacey Catucci, Marc Coen, Trisha Dionne, Al “Tinker” Foy and Rep. Steve Shurtleff. Coen is the only incumbent running. The second seat was held by the late Leonard “Red” Brochu, who passed away in June.

At a recent forum, the candidates introduced themselves to voters, and talked about the many issues facing Concord.

Bagan is a retired doctor who has lived in Concord for almost four decades. Since retiring in the mid-1990s, he has traveled abroad with his wife, Carol, caring for the sick in other countries. He has also served on numerous boards in the community, including the Friends of the Concord City Auditorium.

Catucci is a single mom with two children in the public schools. She recently moved to the city from Massachusetts but joked, “don’t hold that against me.” In a recent letter to the Concord Monitor she lamented the fact that the leadership of Concord seems to have its priorities wrong.

“Granite curbing, a dilapidated tannery, million-dollar roads to the hospital, studies that are not always used, speed calming devices placed and then ripped out, paying outside consultants to do the work of city-paid employees. Why are we spending money on these when there is no food on the table?” she wrote.

Coen is another long-time resident, having lived in Concord for about 35 years. He said his careers in business, including being president of Page Belting, allowed him to keep an eye on city monies.

“I understand revenue, I understand budgets, I understand expenses,” he said.

Dionne is an academic advisory to military-affiliated students at Southern New Hampshire University and a former hair stylist. She said that she liked the way the city feels and wanted to promote the concept of roundtable discussions and improved interactivity between residents and the Council.

Interestingly enough, at press time, she was the only candidate with a Web site, She was unable to attend the forum but introduced herself by way of an audio recording.

Foy was born and raised in Concord and has been active for years around the city. He said he would work to create more affordable housing in Concord, noting that the waiting list at the Concord Housing Authority is more than 400 people long.

Shurtleff was also born and raised in Concord. He has served as a U.S. Marshall, substitute teacher, and vice chairman of the Heritage Commission. He also represents Wards 1, 2, and 3 in the Legislature.

When asked about the city spending money on numerous studies and surveys, most of the candidates agreed that the line item should be eyed. Some also stated that there were many people in the community who had more knowledge about issues than hired consultants. Bagan said he often thinks that consultants produce the information that city officials want to hear.

Another big issue this year is funding for the library.

Bagan said it was an important institution for people who can’t afford to purchase books, magazines or newspapers.

Catucci said she thought there should be more interaction between the public schools and the library.

Shurtleff suggested moving the library to the Merrimack County courthouse building, which would increase the usable space of the library.

Foy questioned the cuts in the library services. He said the city has more than $36 million in investment funds but yet is only receiving 3.5 percent returns. He said city officials should look at the investment portfolio and free up some money.

The issue of the Council meeting outside the purview of the public was also raised.

Coen said the meetings are appropriate at certain times while Shurtleff said his experience serving on a special committee analyzing the Right-to-Know law would help lead to better government.

Foy said the private meetings should be limited to personnel issues while Bagan agreed, saying the Council needs to restructure the way it has public discussions.

Tight budgets over the last few years have been on the minds of both constituents and elected officials. When asked what they would do to raise more revenue, Foy again brought up the issue of the city’s investment portfolio. He said he would also look for more grant funding, private dollars, and outside sources of revenue, but would also figure out how to balance all the requests for services.

“You can’t have everything,” he added.

Bagan said he would like to try and have a revenue-neutral budget although admitted that it was not possible in every situation. He said he would monitor changes in how the city takes care of trash, noting that fees would be going up. He would like to increase recycling and create single-source containers.

Coen said creation of a master plan and clean energy initiatives could bring savings while Shurtleff said he would like to increase the tax base by creating new business.

“You need to figure out needs and if there is money left over, you decide your wants,” he said. Catucci also seeks to increase the business sector tax base.

“We have a wonderful community,” she said. “We have areas set aside to develop. We need to open our eyes and see what we are doing.”

The autonomy of the Concord School Board has become an issue in recent months mostly in the wake of the revelation that the department has been buying up homes around Kimball Elementary School at market rate prices. This has led to the speculation that the elementary school reconfiguration is a done deal. At the same time, school taxes continue to increase, with little regulation or restraint, according to some.

Bagan called the question of Council oversight of the School Board “loaded” and since he had not studied the issue, would not answer one way or the other.

Coen noted that the issue seems to surface every 10 to 15 years and, most recently, was rejected by voters. He said he was “surprised” by the property acquisitions but hoped for better public participation by the board.

Shurtleff said he would support a charter change to eliminate the School Board’s autonomy since they control 65 percent of the budget. He said he was surprised the board had $2 million on hand to buy property. He suggested that the board’s overall budget should be approved by the Council.

Catucci called the question a tough one but one that should be watched. She noted that since the city takes care of the school fields, maybe the Council should review the school budget.

Foy agreed with Shurtleff, saying the School Board should be more accountable to the Council.

If history is any measure, Concord voters have not been kind to outsiders running citywide campaigns for councilor, despite the creative, new ideas they have forwarded in their campaigns.

In the special election last year to fill the remaining term of Councilor Jim McGonigle, who resigned in disgrace after being charged with theft, six candidates faced off for the seat. One of them, Democrat Party insider Matt Newland, received the endorsement of the Concord Monitor and a number of the city’s political players. But with 51 percent turnout, it was Coen who bested Newland—and the rest of the field—handily.

In November 2005, the city elections were very low-key, with no mayoral contest. Long-time Councilor Dr. Douglas Black had considered not running for reelection. Former Republican City Committee head Jeff Newman, a candidate in 2003, and long-time resident Kris MacNeil entered the race, along with a few newcomers. Later, Black decided to run again and Merrimack County Attorney Dan St. Hilaire also jumped in. Both of the better known names—Black and St. Hilaire—won the day, with a paltry 13.8 percent turnout.

Editor's Note: This is a corrected version of a previously published story.

No comments: