Lebanon Mayor Tends to Keep Mum
From left, Walter Paine, Beverly Damren, and Mayor Georgia Tuttle cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon in July 2010.(Valley News - Patrick Fallon) Purchase photo reprints »
Georgia Tuttle (Medora Hebert photograph) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — When it comes to serving as the mayor, Lebanon’s Georgia Tuttle is no Ed Koch. Nor does she want to be.
In January 2012, the City Council approved a media policy that designated the mayor as the governing body’s “chief spokesperson,” defining the city’s chain of command for disseminating information to the press.
Yet Tuttle, who has served as mayor since 2009 and was recently re-elected by her City Council colleagues, has proven a reluctant spokeswoman and rarely comments publicly on pending matters.
In one case earlier this spring, prior to a City Council vote on a major runway project at Lebanon Municipal Airport, Tuttle declined to be interviewed and referred a reporter to City Manager Greg Lewis.
And last month, she did not make herself available for comment over a two-week period as a story about Lewis’ two-year tenure was being reported.
In an interview earlier this week , Tuttle said she prefers not to comment ahead of votes while she is still learning about an issue and deciding how she might vote.
Tuttle said that while she might have some inclination about how she will vote on an issue, “I never know for sure how I’m going to vote when I walk into that room.”
She added that she has been swayed in the past by new information from other city councilors, public testimony, collected data and city employees that emerged during meetings.
“I’m a physician,” said Tuttle, a dermatologist . “I don’t make the diagnosis of what’s wrong with you sitting here based on maybe three sentences from you, but rather through gathering the data.”
Explaining why she has in the past referred questions to the City Manager’s Office, Tuttle said it would be “foolish” for her to discuss issues such as federal aviation regulations or tax allocation in Lebanon ahead of full debate and a vote by the City Council.
“Those are areas where I don’t feel like I can provide clarity,” she said.
To be sure, Tuttle does participate in City Council discussions. During the final debate on the runway matter, Tuttle articulated her vision for the airport and went through more than a dozen points explaining her support for a project that would have lengthened the airport’s primary runway. It was defeated 5-3, with Tuttle in the minority.
The mayor, who was joined this week in the City Hall interview by Lewis, the city manager, also said she is hewing closely to the definition of her job as defined in the city charter : presiding over City Council meetings and acting as the head of the council for all ceremonial purposes.
Neither city councilors nor the mayor receive any compensation .
In a March 2009 interview shortly after she was first elected mayor, Tuttle said, “I see myself as another councilor who happens to have the skill to run a good meeting. ... I’m looking at it as more of the traditional role of Lebanon mayor in the past.”
Tuttle and Lewis in early 2012 worked with other members of the council to pass a “media relations policy” that designated the mayor “or assistant mayor in the mayor’s absence,” or their designee, to be “the chief spokesperson representing the City Council for matters pertaining to the City Council as a whole.”
The policy said individual city councilors could be spokespersons “on events or issues of personal interest to them,” but should also make clear they were not necessarily representing the formal position of the city.
Although the policy would appear to designate Tuttle to speak for the council following votes on issues such as the runway project, she could not be reached for comment after the airport vote last month.
Asked this week about her unavailability, Tuttle said she was busy and also wouldn’t have felt comfortable commenting since she was in the minority on the runway vote.
Both Lewis and Tuttle on Tuesday took pains to emphasize that under Lebanon’s “weak mayor” form of government, the position is little more than a figurehead. City councilors vote and set policy, but the city manager runs the city day to day. That’s in contrast to a loquacious mayor such as the late Koch, who served three terms in the 1980s and never shied from engaging with the media.
Tuttle said another reason behind her reluctance to speak with the press stems from her preference that she not be identified as the city’s mayor in stories not directly relating to City Council business.
For example, she objected in December 2011, and again this week, to a Valley News story about a Lebanon school forum where Tuttle, who was in the audience, raised questions about a full-day kindergarten proposal. She was identified as the mayor in the headline and the story.
“When I stand up and say, ‘My name is Georgia Tuttle,’ I am speaking as an individual. I am not speaking as mayor,’” Tuttle said this week. “I think it is disingenuous (to be identified as mayor).
“And if you want me to speak to you as mayor,” she added, “I don’t dare, because I don’t know what you’ll write.”
Tuttle also said she was often too busy with personal or professional obligations to respond to questions from the press.
A native of Virginia Beach, Va., Tuttle graduated from University of Maine and then Tufts University School of Medicine in 1980. She trained as a dermatologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and later served as president of the medical staff at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital.
Tuttle was also the first woman elected president of the New Hampshire Medical Society and is now a member of the board of trustees of the American Medical Association .
Tuttle’s reluctance to talk with the press in Lebanon stands in contrast to the often gregarious nature of past mayors .
Pat Hayes, who served as mayor in 2006 and 2007, said that he had always believed communicating with the press was part of the job description. Hayes, who described himself as a longtime friend of Tuttle, said that the mayor plays an important role as spokesperson for the council, someone that can speak on behalf of the governing body as well as the city.
“When the body politic casts its vote and the majority wins an issue, then the mayor is the one to say, ‘That’s the issue, that’s how the council is going to implement the issue,’ ” said Hayes. “And I think it behooves the mayor to make that decision clear to the press, so I would encourage her to do so.”
Terri Dudley, who served as mayor from 1997 to 1999, said she was “always available to speak to the media” during her time in office and said “each mayor of Lebanon should do the same.
“You’re elected by the council, but you’re elected to the council by the people,” said Dudley. “So you’re responsible to them to know what’s going on and share your thoughts on things.”
Dudley also described herself as a friend and West Lebanon neighbor of Tuttle. While noting that Tuttle was “extremely busy” with her various obligations, Dudley said there was a “definite upside” to communicating actively with the press.
“Once you’re elected by the people, transparency is a must,” she said.
Some of Tuttle’s City Council colleagues gave her leeway on the matter, and her unanimous re-election would appear to be evidence they are satisfied with her performance as mayor.
“Our mayor is very hardworking,” said City Councilor Nicole Cormen. “She has a medical practice, she has a position with the (AMA) that’s very demanding and takes her out of town a lot.”
Cormen added, however, that she has recently encouraged Tuttle to be more communicative with the media.
Claremont Mayor James Neilsen said that, much as it is in Lebanon, the mayor and the city manager are the two official spokespeople for the city. He said he has never had problems dealing with the media, and added that “if there were to be an issue,” it is more likely to be that he was not contacted for a story when he felt he should have been.
“I think people ought to stand behind what they say,” said Neilsen. “If they don’t want to be put in that position, then they can just say ‘no comment.’ ”
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.