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Claremont Charter Commission Divided

Claremont — Charter Commission member Joe Osgood said Tuesday that the recommendation to change from a city manager/city council form of government to a mayor/board of aldermen would improve public participation in city government — particularly on budgetary matters — and diminish the power of paid city staff members.

Osgood rejected the notion that the change is being proposed to undercut longtime City Manager Guy Santagate, whose position would be eliminated under the proposal.

“Absolutely not, I don’t feel that way,” Osgood said. “And besides, if this passes, he has every right to run for mayor.”

From his perspective, State Rep. Ray Gagnon, D-Claremont, another member of the commission, sees some people who are “very vocal” and are pushing the change because they don’t agree with the council.

“There seems to be a real anger at the city manager and city council,” he said.

When the commission completes its work and the November vote approaches, Gagnon said it is critical that voters become well-informed of the changes that would take place if a new charter is approved.

“We need to ensure that an educational process takes place,” Gagnon said. “We need to do a presentation to the community on what is changing, what is different and what the impact will be.”

Osgood said he has heard from “every angle” on the commission’s work when speaking to residents, with many supporting the change.

“We will put together (standing) committees and those committees will have members of the public who will give input,” said Osgood, a Republican state representative, who made the motion at the commission meeting in March to write a new charter with a different form of government.

Committees could include finance and public works, among others.

“They are very glad we are taking this approach to give them the ability to feel more confident about city government,” said Osgood.

Gagnon, D-Claremont, was among the commissioner members opposed to the new charter idea along with current City Councilor Nick Koloski and former City Manager Robert Porter.

“There is not one person I have met who told me they like what the commission is recommending,” said Gagnon. “There a lot of concern about the implications and what this means. They are leery of a strong mayor and are happy with the present system. They don’t want a complete charter change.”

The commission had first voted to revise the current charter and then on March 14 voted 5-3 to recommend changing the form of government. If voters approve the new charter in November, the mayor would be elected and assume many of the duties now held by the city manager.

Using Manchester’s charter as a format, the commission is going through each section and making changes that reflect Claremont’s smaller size.

For example, there would be a mayor and eight aldermen, two from each of the three wards and two elected citywide.

The administrative and executive powers of the city would be vested in the mayor. These include control over expenditures and appropriations and creation of a budget. The mayor also holds veto power over the board of aldermen and it would take a two-thirds (5) majority of the aldermen to override the veto.

While the public would not vote on the city budget with a mayor and aldermen, the process leading up to the budget recommendation would involve more residents, not just those elected as aldermen, Osgood said.

“This is much better than what we have now. The public will be more involved.”

Under Claremont’s current system, Osgood said, too much power is held by the city manager.

“One person has total control and seems to take more control over those who are supposed to control him,” Osgood said.

Osgood also said the city manager can hire and fire department heads but a mayor will need six aldermen to approve the removal of any department head.

Commission chairman George Caccavaro said he has heard from both sides on the new charter idea.

“I’m getting pretty strong vibes in both directions,” Caccavaro said. “In my opinion, some don’t like it that they don’t have input on whether the city manager stays and they don’t have confidence in the City Council.”

Osgood said he has spoken to some potential candidates for City Council who don’t run because they don’t feel they could create any change with a minority viewpoint.

Caccavaro plans to support the majority but is concerned that not enough residents will back a new charter in November and he’s holding out hope for a different outcome before the commission wraps up its work in June and submits the recommendations to the state.

“These changes are good. Maybe we can fold them into the current charter,” he said.

If not, the commission’s work may not yield any change.

“I’m afraid we will be going through a lot of good hard work and lose it all,” Caccavaro said.

A petition being circulated calls for the commission to revise the current charter but it has not been presented to the panel.

The proposed charter will be presented to the City Council in July but it does not need council approval before being placed on the ballot in November.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.