LACONIA — When Matt Lahey was a young boy he and his mother planted a maple sapling in the front yard of their home on Cottonwood Avenue. Today the tree shades the house where Lahey and his wife raised their three children, just as he has cast his shadow over city government for the past two decades.
After serving four terms as a city councilor bracketed around five terms as mayor, Lahey attended his last regular city council meeting a week ago, leaving only the future of the former Laconia State School property among his major undertakings undone.
"I'll only come back if there was something bad happening," he said.
A child of the city, Lahey graduated from Laconia High School in 1973. An outstanding athlete as well as an accomplished student, he was a member of the baseball team that captured the Class L state championship and posted the third best time in the state in the 60-yard high hurdles.
With a degree from the University of New Hampshire, where he paid his way working on road crews for Pike Industries, he tried his hand at banking as a management trainee at Indian Head Bank of Nashua, only to find he would rather practice law. While studying at Franklin Pierce Law Center (now the University of New Hampshire School of Law) he acquired a taste for the courtroom as an intern with the Laconia Police Department and in 1983 joined the office of Phil McLaughlin, Bob Hemeon and Michael Murphy.
"I did 10 or more jury trials a year in district court, superior court and federal court," he said, recalling that Superior Court Justice Walter Murphy once told him "Lahey, you're like a gym rat. You're always here." He credited his colleagues, particularly McLaughlin, for helping him divine the mysteries of criminal practice and courtroom conduct. After 16 years he became a sole practitioner, specializing in criminal defense and personal injury.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin drew Lahey into the political arena. With the advent of the Straight Arrow movement in 1989, when McLaughlin served on the School Board, Lahey made his first bid for the City Council, losing the race in Ward 2 by nine votes. Two years later, following the divisive administration of the Straight Arrows, when catcalls and booing punctuated public meetings, Lahey ran as a candidate of the Unity Committee — Republicans and Democrats agreed not to run against each other that year, easily capturing Ward 2 by a margin of 505 to 167 as seven of 10 city voters went to the polls.
Lahey recalled that his first term was marked by the secession movement in the Weirs, among the issues that had been festering. Legislation was introduced in 1991 after the Municipal and County Government Committee in the New Hampshire House of Representatives found that "the treatment of the Weirs by the city of Laconia has been such as to be significantly injurious to the health, safety and welfare of the inhabitants, summer residents and tourists of the Weirs." In 1992 the bill carried the House by a voice vote, but died in the Senate.
Lahey remembered spending his first two terms on the council seeking to gradually repair "the damage done by the Straight Arrows", especially restoring kindergarten and replenishing the School District budget, which he said was cut by $2 million. At the same time, he said that following the failure of a referendum sponsored by the Straight Arrows to authorize the governor to appoint the Police Commission, steps were taken to ensure the three commissioners were elected by popular vote.
In 1996, Lahey was elected mayor and served three terms. The sharpest controversy arose over the establishment of the Lakes Business Park, undertaken in partnership with the town of Gilford. Lahey championed the project and cast the deciding the vote. He said that councilors Mark Fraser and Rick Judkins, both among his political allies, were opposed to the project, but once it was authorized joined him on the negotiating team that hammered out the agreement with Gilford that ensured the revenue would be shared evenly. "It was very controversial and the negotiations were arduous with weekly meetings for months," he said.
Lahey counted the first phase of the park, originally intended to house manufacturing firms, a success as Freudenburg-NOK, Stamping Technologies and Brad Fitzgerald, who owned and operated a plumbing and heating company, purchased lots and erected buildings. He said that the second phase, modeled on the first to attract manufacturers, has been "defined by the economy," explaining that while F.W. Webb Company built a warehouse other lots have become home to medical clinics and office condominiums.
As mayor, Lahey was in the thick of the negotiations with the state that led to the establishment of the Robbie Mills Sports Complex off Meredith Center Road and other concession to the city in return for perpetuating and expanding the capacity of the Lakes Region Facility. Lahey said that the prison had been a bone of contention between the state and the city since it opened earlier in the 1990s. Securing the 99-year lease from the state to develop part of the former Laconia State School property as a sports complex, Lahey said was his highest priority.
With City Manager Dan McKeever and State Senator Leo Fraser, Lahey bargained with state officials during much of the legislative session in 1998, finally reaching an agreement that secured the lease, along with state funding to construct the playing fields. "It went on for days ," Lahey said. "There were lots of tense moments and we would return from Concord exhausted." In particular, he lauded the efforts of Fraser, on whom the negotiations took a heavy toll. When the complex was opened, Governor Jeanne Shaheen was on hand to share in the celebration.
Lahey left office in 2002, but laid the groundwork for the undertaking that would cap in his career — the construction of a new middle school and renovation of his alma mater. Between 2002 and 2006, when he was again elected mayor, he worked with School Superintendent Bob Champlin and the School Board, ultimately preparing a proposal to purchase land off Parade Road to house a new campus that would include the middle and high schools.
With a price tag of about $75 million, the project met with a firestorm of opposition. A hotly contested election in 2005 featured two slates of candidates, one, led by Lahey and backed by the School Board and the other championing the property tax cap, which was also on the ballot. Although the tax cap carried, Lahey's slate captured a majority of seats on the council and he was returned for a second stint as mayor.
At his inauguration in January 2006, Layey placed reconstruction of the middle school at the top of his agenda and nine months later the council unanimously authorized borrowing $23 million for the project. Reflecting on the turn of events, Lahey described the Parade Road plan as "a beachhead, a starting point" that prompted councilors to seek an alternative, namely keeping the schools within the core of the city.
With the middle school complete, Lahey began preparing for the renovation and expansion of the Huot Regional Technical Education Center and Laconia High School by the close of his second term as mayor in 2010. Stepping aside as mayor, he was again elected to the council in Ward 2. Champlin had begun putting together the financing for the Huot Center, a project that eventually grew to include the reconfiguration of the playing fields and construction of new science laboratories on the high school campus.
Short of funding for the $16.8 million project, Lahey and Champlin mounted an aggressive capital campaign, soliciting generous donations from local businesses, including the Bank of New Hampshire, Meredith Village Savings Bank, Irwin Motors, Eptam Plastics and others. Lahey was in the forefront of the fundraising effort.
"The greatest success the City Council has had was that project," Lahey said, "all because the City Council and School Board worked so well together." He attributed much of the success to the close partnership between City Manager Scott Myers and Champlin, which together with the generous support from the community brought the project to fruition. Likewise, he lauded councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5), who he said became "a tremendous advocate" for the project.
As both mayor and councilor, Lahey was a steadfast champion of the schools, convinced that exemplary schools would serve as a valuable asset to the entire community. Likewise, he believed the acquisition of the former Laconia State School property represented a unique opportunity for the city that would enhance the prospects for its economic future. He chaired a state commission to consider the future of the property convened by the Legislature and convinced the council to offer more for the property than it is worth.
"It's left undone," he said, noting the state has proved reluctant to part with the property at a reasonable price. "But, it should still be on the agenda of the City Council until its resolved," he added. We should try to buy it."
Both as mayor and councilor, Lahey was not given to long speeches in the council chamber. More often than not he leaned back in his chair, distancing himself from the microphone and rocked back and forth. He pursued his issues outside the formal setting, in one-on-one conversations, listening to his colleagues misgivings and seeking to overcome them to build the necessary consensus. He played politics and played it well, as witnessed by the lack of dissension during his tenure.
Lahey describes himself as "goal driven" and conceded that without a significant goal within reach, the time has come to step down. "The mayor," he said, "is the big idea guy, the agenda setter" and advised the incoming mayor "to avoid compiling a laundry list of priorities and instead pick one or two things and talk about them every day. Use the inauguration to set the goals," he continued. "Say we're going to do X, then work on it and stay with it till it's done."