LACONIA — "This is not what we expected to hear," Wes Colby confessed after the Straight Arrows, an insurgent slate of candidates, captured six of the nine seats on the City Council in the 1989 election to usher in the two most tumultuous political years imaginable, the impact of which still reverberates 25 years later.
The sitting mayor, Colby appeared confident when he announced for re-election, remarking " Laconia has stopped dealing with issues in a negative way and is focusing its energies and that of its officials and employees on the challenges that face us." But, when the votes were counted Colby held one of the three at-large seats while Straight Arrows captured the other two and four of six wards as well as gained an ally in a fifth.
Although the victory of the Straight Arrows would prove short lived — they were swept from office two years later by a bi-partisan coalition — their impact on city politics was lasting and profound. On their initiative the city council would shrink from nine to six, with the elimination of three at-large councilors. The mayor, who had been chosen by the councilors from among their number, became directly elected by the people. City elections, which had been contested by candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties, became non-partisan and a primary election was introduced to winnow the field of candidates.
The antipathy to rising property taxes that swept the Straight Arrows to power lingered and in 2005 the property tax cap they proposed 16 years earlier, was adopted.
"MY TAXES ARE GOING TO BE TRIPLED THIS YEAR"
The bow string that sent the Straight Arrows to power was drawn in May 1988 with the first revaluation of taxable property in a decade. Since the city was last revalued in 1978, the median home price in New Hampshire had jumped 74-percent, from $95,000 in 1980 to $165.000 in 1990, the steepest rise in the history of the state. In Laconia the total assessed valuation leaped three-and-a-half times, from $292,833,301, or 35-percent of fair market value, to $1,059,025,493.
The day after the new values were announced some 400 property owners appeared at City Hall to question their assessment and and another 60 appeared in the first hour the next day. Altogether more than 1,300 property owners filed requests for abatements. In October, the 1988 tax rate was set at $16.25 per $1,000 of assessed value, down from $49.77 the year before. But, the news did nothing to temper the reaction.
Waterfront property, along the shores of Paugus Bay and Lake Winnisquam as well as at the Weirs, recorded the steepest increases in values. The assessed value of 51 properties in Paugus Park rose from $1.6 million to $17.3 million, increasing an average of 1,000 percent, while the average property tax bill climbed by more than 250 percent. On Shore Drive, property values jumped by nearly 350 percent and taxes by 50 percent. For instance, a home at Paugus Park assessed for $48,025 in 1987 increased to $346,500 in 1988 and the tax bill climbed from $2,390 to $6,064 while the assessed value of a home on Shore Drive rose from $111,608 to $477,400 and the taxes climbed from $5,555 to $8,354.
Writing to The Evening Citizen, a physician recalled patients less concerned about their ailments than their tax bills. "You know, Doc," one told him, "I'm going to have to sell my house, my taxes are going to be tripled this year, and I can't afford it any more." Another feared his taxes would quadruple.
At the same time, the value of industrial and commercial property at O'Shea Industrial Park and downtown also increased, but at a slower pace, so their taxes decreased, shifting a share of the total burden to residential taxpayers. For example, the value of 17 properties on Primrose Drive and Lexington Drive rose 49-percent, from $13.1 million to $19.5 million and their taxes dropped 42 percent. Downtown the value of 35 properties increased from $11.9 million to $22.6 million, but all paid lower taxes.
By the summer of 1988 a half-dozen organizations of property owners had formed to contest the revaluation and by August had coalesced into an umbrella group, Concerned Citizens of Laconia, Inc. The organization retained an attorney and explored litigation to enjoin the city from applying the assessments and appealing to the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals, only to shelve both initiatives in favor of assisting individual taxpayers with seeking abatements.
The revaluation followed in the wake of rising city budgets and fell on near the start of a severe economic slump. Between 1981 and 1988 the municipal budget grew from $14 million to $25 million while the amount raised by property taxes doubled, rising from $8.8 million to $17.2 million. Increased compensation and expanded benefits for municipal employees, especially police officers and firefighters, and school teachers represented a significant share of greater expenditures. Meanwhile, with the beginning of a regionally-devastating recession in late 1988, job growth had stalled, bankruptcies risen, home sales slowed, borrowers defaulted and credit tightened as the "Massachusetts Miracle" imploded.
Laconia was not alone. Throughout the state taxpayers were clamoring for relief from sharply rising property tax rates. Measures to cap taxes or spending were proposed and debated in many municipalities, including Franklin and Portsmouth. And when the Legislature convened in January a constitutional amendment limiting the annual increase in property taxation to five-percent topped the agenda at the Statehouse.
"I CAN'T SAY I'M TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTED
BECAUSE I'M NOT TERRIBLY SURPRISED"
(Joni Stover, Concerned Citizens of Laconia)
Amid this fervor, the City Council tackled the 1989-1990 budget. The council consisted of nine members, three councilors elected at-large and one from each of the six wards. Elections were held on a partisan basis as the Republican and Democratic caucuses convened in September to nominate a slate of candidates for the nine seats.
The sitting councilors, elected in 1987, were: Colby (R), Armand Bolduc (D), and David Bownes (D), who were elected at-large, and Bob Sawyer (R-Ward 1), Tom Tardif (D-Ward 2), Don Forsberg (R-Ward 3), George Faris (R-Ward 4), Ella Bourgoine (D-Ward 5) and Frank deHaven (R-Ward 6). The councilors chose Colby as mayor.
City Manager Ken Boehner recommended a budget of $27.3 million, which represented an increase of $2.3 million, or 9 percent. He proposed city appropriations of $13 6-million. The School Board requested another $12.4 million, which it called a "bare bones budget," along with a $5 million borrowing to construct a new elementary school on 25 acres of the former Laconia State School site to be purchased from the state. And the city's share of the Belknap County budget was projected at $1.3 million, an increase of 17 percent. Boehner estimated that the amount to be raised by property taxes would increase by nearly $2 million, to $19 million, and the tax rate by almost $2.
In March, the council advised the School Board that it would limit its budget to $11.9 million, a reduction $445,833, which became the fulcrum on which the budget debate turned. A group calling itself Responsible Citizens of Laconia backed the original request of the School Board while Concerned Citizens of Laconia supported the council while claiming that setting the bottom line of the school budget represented "preferential treatment" that jeopardized funding for other departments. After several crowded public meetings in April, the School Board urged the council to reconsider its position.
The mounting controversy moved Robert St. Louis, a former city councilor, to note that the council was "under siege" and predicted that "if substantial cuts are not made in the coming budget by the present City Council, you may just be saying goodbye to all of them after the November election."
As councilors scrambled to fashion a compromise, they split into two camps. Colby proposed trimming the School Board's request by $300,000 to $12.1 million, which he noted still represented a 12 percent increase in the school budget. He estimated that his package would yield a tax rate of $17.75. He was joined by Bownes, Bolduc, Sawyer and Forsberg.
Tardif, who earlier said he would accept a tax rate of $17 "at most", Faris, Bourgoine and deHaven balked. "This is a compromise I've seen no part of," Faris declared. Noting that the budget proposed raising $18.5 million in property taxes — an increase of $1.3-million, or 8-percent — Tardif reminded councilors that the year before it endorsed his resolution to cap the tax commitment at $18 million and charged the majority with reneging on their vow. He was reminded that although the resolution was adopted, the minutes recorded that the phrase "shall cap" was amended to "may cap."
With Tardif abstaining, the budget was adopted by a vote of 5 to 3 before what The Evening Citizen described as "a large and sometimes hostile crowd." When Bownes began, "I ask you to remember that the city of Laconia is a damn good place to live," he was interrupted by a call of "it used to be!"
"THEY WANT TO TOPPLE CITY HALL"
What would become the agenda of the Straight Arrows began to take shape in the summer of 1989 with proposals to cap the amount raised by property taxes and restructure the composition of the City Council.
In July, John Hilberg of Shore Drive, who would set the agenda of the Straight Arrows, presented the city council with a petition to amend the City Charter by providing that "the people shall be forced to pay in taxes no more than the amount to which, as voters, they consent."
Hilberg proposed that each year voters would be asked to choose property tax increases ranging from whatever the City Council recommends to eight, six, four, two percent or no increase at all or, alternatively, between decreases ranging from two, four, six , eight and 10 percent. What he called the Voter Consent Tax Charge would be calculated by tallying the votes for each option, beginning with the council's recommendation and proceeding downward until the cumulative running total reaches or exceeds a majority. His plan would forbid the city manager from proposing or the City Council from adopting a budget that raised property taxes in excess of the amount specified by voters. In the event the tax commitment exceeded the limit set by voters, the budget would be reduced by an equivalent amount the following year.
Ultimately more than 1,200 qualified voters signed Hilberg's petition, in a drive mounted by three dozens "captains". Writing to thank them for their effort, Hilberg noted that "surely you have noticed how angry the voters of Laconia are. It is not just that they want the tax vote," he continued. "They want to topple City Hall."
Hilberg would prepare five drafts of his proposal to ensure the "tax vote" did not interfere with mandated municipal expenditures. But, since only the second and flawed version was attached to the petition, the council, despite its author's insistence, voted 8 to 1, with Tardif dissenting, not to consider the others. In September, the council declined to place the proposal on the ballot and instead referred the second draft to the New Hampshire Secretary of State.
Dan McKeever, who succeeded Boehner as city manager in July, said that he agreed with city attorney James Sessler that the "proposal is legally flawed and poses serious practical problems for the city." In particular, Sessler advised that the "tax vote" conflicted with state law vesting the City Council with authority over fiscal matters.
Hilberg accused the councilors of breaking the law and warned if they refused to place the fifth and corrected draft on the ballot, he would challenge their decision in court.
In the meantime, Concerned Citizens of Laconia presented a petition, which Hilberg signed along with 1,600 others, to shrink the council to six members by eliminating the three at-large councilors and to directly elect the mayor, who could vote only to break a stalemate. "We believe," the group stated, "that this charter change would make citizens more active in their wards, promote greater compromise among councilors, return city government to its people and provide maximum accountability to each councilor's constituency."
Helene Gouin and Marie Landroche, president and vice-president of the organization, claimed that the three at-large councilors, by regularly voting as a block, were able to thwart the will of any four of the six ward councilors, who together represented two-thirds of the people. They said that the at-large councilors scuttled Tardif's resolution to postpone application of the 1988 revaluation and carried the 1989-1990 budget over the opposition of four ward councilors. Phil Davis noted that because the at-large councilors often lived in Wards 1 or 3, the relatively affluent residents were disproportionately represented on the council.
A third proposal, to conduct future elections on a non-partisan basis, was tabled by the City Council in September. Echoing his distaste for at-large councilors, Davis charged that the party caucuses were "a stacked method of selecting candidates by a small group of the fairly well-to-do." Despite enjoying support from across the political spectrum, including a majority of the City Council, the proposal was shelved. The petition to reduce the number of councilors and proposal to introduce nonpartisan elections both amended the same section of the charter.
Bownes explained that while he favored non-partisan elections and opposed shrinking the council, the petitioned amendment was entitled to a placed on the ballot and he could not vote for anything that would interfere with it. Likewise, Tardif said that "I will not vote to jeopardize the work of citizens who gathered 1,600 signatures," but added that he was not opposed to non-partisan elections.
"WE ARE NOT IRRESPONSIBLE CITIZENS"
On September 26, two days before the Republican and Democratic caucuses convened to nominate their candidates for City Council, a group calling itself "the Straight Arrow" held a press conference to announce it would field a ticket in November.
Speaking for the group Pat Clairmont explained that the name "Straight Arrow" signaled "honesty and integrity. Our goal is to bring more accountability to the city." Clairmont announced that he would run in Ward 1 alongside fellow Republicans Robert Lachance in Ward 2 and Dick Sargent in Ward 5 and Irene LaVallee in Ward 4. The next day Tardif joined the ticket as an at-large candidate, along with Gouin and Davis of the Concerned Citizens of Laconia, both running at-large, Hilberg in Ward 3 and Berni Paradise, in Ward 6 to complete the slate of nine candidates.
"We are not irresponsible citizens, we are not anti school," Davis insisted. "We are concerned with holding the line on costs." In a prepared statement the group vowed to "offer the citizens of Laconia alternatives to the spend, spend, tax, tax philosophies of recent city councils."
Tardif, who earlier hinted he would not seek re-election, said he joined the Straight Arrow ticket because its philosophy and objectives most closely matched his own politics. "I feel the majority of the council has voted for what it thinks people need rather than what the people want," he said.
Former mayor Ed Chertok, a prominent Republican, welcomed the appearance of a third party. "The more people we get interested, the better off we are," he said. The problem has been to get people interested in governing themselves. A lot of people complain, but they never do anything."
But, the day after the announcement, attorney Phil McLaughlin, chairman of the School Board, writing to The Evening Citizen, warned "we are becoming a divided community," pointing to those "who would change the form of our government, impose unrealistic restrictions on funding and shut down what to most are ordinary and necessary services."
When the party caucuses convened a day later, the turnout was the largest in recent memory as Republicans cast 543 ballots and Democrats 239. Colby topped the Republican poll with 342 votes, three times more than Niel Young and and four times more than Red Dunn who both joined him as at-large candidates. The other nominees were Dave Thurston (Ward 1), Jeff Kellett (Ward 3), Faris the incumbent in Ward 4, and Glenn Dewhirst (Ward 6).
However, Tardif, with write-in votes, finished with the third highest total among the at-large candidates on the GOP ballot and his fellow Straight Arrows, Lachance and Sargent, also with write-in votes, topped the poll in Ward 2 and Ward 5, where the Republicans failed to field candidates. The Republican City Committee struck both Tardif, a registered Democrat, and Lachance, a registered Independent, from the GOP ballot while declaring Sargent, a registered Republican but announced Straight Arrow, the nominee in Ward 5. With two votes in the caucus, Bob Luther became the GOP candidate in Ward 2.
Meanwhile, the Democrats chose incumbents Bownes and Bolduc, along with Dallas Gilbert as at-large candidates and David Stamps (Ward 1), Matt Lahey (Ward 2), Doris Makely (Ward 5) and Richard Kehl (Ward 6), but failed to field candidates in Wards 3 and 4. Tardif also made a strong showing at the Democratic caucus, coming within a single vote of tying Gilbert for the third at-large spot on the ballot. A recount confirmed Gilbert the winner. A second Straight Arrow, LaVallee, polled the most votes in Ward 4, but as a registered Republican was declared ineligible for a slot on the Democratic ticket.
"NOBODY HAS BEEN DISENFRANCHISED"
On September 29, the day after the caucuses and a week before the deadline for placing petitioned amendments to the City Charter on the ballot, Hilberg and his Tax Vote Petitioners' Committee filed suit in Belknap County Superior Court against the eight city councilors for refusing to put the fifth version of his "Tax Vote" proposal on the November ballot. Tardif, who favored acceptance of the fifth draft, was the lone councilor not named in the suit.
Represented by attorney Charles Morang of Concord, Hilberg charged the eight acted "in bad faith with malice , outside the scope of their authority and in violation of law" and asked the court to declare the fifth draft legal, order it placed on the ballot and to forbid the city from printing ballots until the issue is resolved.
For the city, Sessler countered that the only legitimate version of the proposal was the second draft, which was attached to the petition and certified by the city clerk. Hilberg insisted that the council should have accepted the fifth draft, written to comply with state law. "The council believed they had no authority to add or delete wording," said McKeever, who added "without the addition, the proposal falls flat on its face, but even with the addition it is still suspect."
On October 5, the evening before the court hearing, the City Council voted 7 to 2 to take no action on the "Tax Vote" pending the ruling of the court, which the next day denied Hilberg's request to forestall the printing of ballots.
But, the Straight Arrows were not done. A week after the caucuses, Hilberg wrote to the Republican and Democratic city committees, alleging that the parties acted improperly after the caucuses when they excluded three Straight Arrow candidates — Tardif, Lachance and LaVallee— from the party tickets. While calling his letters "an informal attempt to resolve things amicably," Hilberg did not rule out litigation.
Then, a week later, the Straight Arrow candidates announced they would sue the city if it refused to change the format of the ballot to present them as a political party with their candidates listed in a separate column so that voters could vote a straight ticket.
On October 9, Sessler convened a meeting in hopes of dispelling the issues clouding the upcoming election. Present were City Manager McKeever and City Clerk Ann Dearborn, Warren Clement of the Republican City Committee and Dallas Gilbert of the Democratic City Committee, Tardif and attorney Morang representing the Straight Arrow Committee and Dave Gammon, an independent at-large candidate.
According to Sessler the Straight Arrow candidates would not relinquish their challenges to the results of the party caucuses unless the city placed them on the ballot as a political party. The city refused, referring to a state statute requiring a political group to poll 3 percent of the vote at the preceding general election to qualify as a political party. Instead, McKeever said that the ballot will list the names of the Straight Arrow candidates with the designation "Straight Arrow" alongside them.
"Everyone who has expressed an interest in running for office is going to be on the ballot," Gilbert said. "We don't understand why they are forcing the city to spend more money and effort in court."
Within a week, Tardif, as chairman of the Straight Arrow Committee, went to court seeking to forestall the the printing of ballots until the Straight Arrow candidates who won nomination in the caucuses were placed on the party ballots and that the ballot provided voters the option of a straight Straight Arrow ticket. If the Straight Arrow is denied a straight ticket, the suit asked that Republicans and Democrats be treated the same and the names of all candidates, together with their affiliation, be printed in alphabetical order.
Morang urged the court to postpone the election, reschedule the caucuses and "start the process all over and hope they get it right." Sessler told the court that the suit is "a politically motivated and ill-disguised effort to gain an advantage in the electoral process." Speaking for the city Democrats, attorney Phil McLaughlin called the Straight Arrow candidates "a group which on the one hand presents itself as concerned with fiscal matters and on the other hand has a big bankroll to shut down the political process in the city."
The suit was dismissed on October 24. Justice James Barry, Jr. ruled that jurisdiction over electoral issues rested with the Ballot Law Commission, whose decisions can be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court and enforced by the Superior Court. McKeever said that the ballots were printed and "nobody has been disenfranchised. Every candidate seeking office is on the ballot."
"WHO ARE THESE STRAIGHT ARROWS ANYWAY?"
(Straight Arrow Advertisement)
"We are a group of your neighbors, who just got fed up," read one of the Straight Arrows' early advertisements. "In so many ways, we are you!"
Six of the nine Straight Arrows were men, four of them older than 65 —Phil Davis, Pat Clairmont, John Hilberg and Dick Sargent — and one, Robert Lachance, just 25. Five were business owners , managers, or self-employed , including two women — Helene Gouin, who managed her husband's plumbing and heating firm, and Berni Paradise, co-owner of of Lakes Region Construction, Inc. Lachance owned and operated a market and Clairmont was a self-employed insurance and real estate agent. Hilberg, who described himself as an entrepreneur, had taught political science at the University of Connecticut and Tardif worked for New England Telephone, Co. Davis retired from the Army as a sergeant major then worked 15 years for the state before retiring again. Sargent was a retired machinist who served as a union official at Scott & Williams, Inc.
Many volunteered in the community. Irene LaVallee devoted time to hospice and the medical pool as well as cared the elderly. Hilberg was a past director of the Lakes Region YMCA and served on the finance committee at Holy Trinity School. Paradise sat on the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Clairmont belonged to the Loon Preservation Committee and other animal rights groups. Gouin worked with the Youth Services Bureau diversion program and represented the city on the Lakes Region Planning Commission. Only Tardif , who was completing his first term as a city councilor, had ever sought or held elective office before.
Outwardly conventional, the Straight Arrows were populist insurgents bent on wresting control of city government from those they referred to as "the good old boys" or "the establishment." Noting that three sitting councilors lived in Ward 3, Davis warned that as many as four might reside in the same ward. The Straight Arrows, he said, "will put an end to the almost total control over city affairs currently exercised by two wards of the city and the special interest power brokers of the old guard (elite)."
They noted that before they entered the election, only the three incumbents, one Republican and two Democrats, had filed for the three at-large seats and in five of the six wards a Democrat or Republican was running unopposed, leaving only one contested race in Ward 6. "It seemed to us that the entrenched politicians of both parties were pretty close to dividing the council seats among themselves, with scarcely a whimper from the public," the Straight Arrows remarked.
They also took aim at straight ticket voting, claiming that "it lets the major parties smuggle people into office who couldn't make it on their own" and cited the state Constitution, which assures every qualified person an "equal right to be elected into office." In a similar vein the Straight Arrows highlighted their commitment to "open, responsive and accountable city government" accessible to the people and the introduction of non-partisan elections.
In the days before the election the Straight Arrow placed a series of advertisements in The Evening Citizen outlining and explaining their platform, each of them topped by a pledge to oppose any budget that required an increase in property taxes. Furthermore, they said they would hold a special election at which Hilberg's "Tax Vote" amendment to the City Charter would be on the ballot along with proposals to grant the city council greater authority over the city manager, authorize the council to appoint the Police Commission and conduct non-partisan city elections.
They also promised to "do all that is possible to undo the ravages of the recent re-assessment. " Apart from correcting the errors they claimed riddled the assessment, they aimed to reverse the "MASSIVE TRANSFER OF WEALTH" caused by undervaluing commercial and industrial properties and overvaluing residential properties. They argued that homeowners not only bore a greater share of the tax burden, but as their property tax rose, the value of their home fell — "on average by about TEN TIMES the amount of the tax increase." The Straight Arrows pledged to revise the assessment procedure to ensure that assessed values matched market prices.
The Straight Arrow candidates openly opposed construction of a fourth elementary school. The school contemplated seeking to purchase a 25-acre parcel from the tract on North Main Street that formerly housed the Laconia State School. As a city councilor Tardif had challenged the project, claiming that because the school population was decreasing, not increasing, there was no need for another school. The Straight Arrows called the city council's endorsement of the plan a "CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF THE KIND OF FISCAL FOLLY that is Frittering Away Your Hard-Come-By Tax Dollars."
The Straight Arrows also rejected the assumption that "schools are in trouble because selfish taxpayers skimp on funding them" as a fallacy. "We think," they said, "the major problem is that the school administrators do not deliver adequate value for the very substantial funds that they already have to work with." As a council they intended to press the School Board for improvements, adding "but if they tell there are problems, we won't just throw money at them."
The Straight Arrows mounted an aggressive, well financed and thoughtfully orchestrated campaign. At-large candidates met with small groups throughout the city while those running in the six wards canvassed door-to-door. They advertised, both as individual candidates and as a united ticket. Their messaging and canvassing aimed especially at residents living on fixed incomes and owning waterfront property. On the Thursday before election day the Straight Arrows distributed a mass mailing.
"LACONIA IS EXPERIENCING AN UPRISING"
On election day the sun was shining and the mercury climbed to the fifties, setting the stage for an expected record turnout among the 7,730 registered voters in the city. When the polls closed, 4,079 voters, 53 percent of the electorate, had cast ballots, nearly twice as many as in the previous municipal election in 1987.
The Straight Arrows captured two of the three at-large seats and four of the six wards. Tardif carried four of six wards, leading the poll among at-large candidates with 1,720 votes. He was trailed by Colby, who carried wards 1 and 3, with 1,541 votes while Helene Gouin took the the third seat with 1,397 votes. Davis, the third Straight Arrow running at-large, finished just out of the money with 1,272 votes.
Clairmont topped Thurston by nine votes, 317 to 308, to win in Ward 1. Lachance was elected in Ward 2 by a 12 vote margin, 210 to 198, over Lahey. In Ward 5 Sargent dispatched Makely by 232 to 157. And Paradise, 403 votes, won handily in Ward 6 where Dewhirst and Kehl split the balance of the votes. Two of the nine Straight Arrow candidates fell short. In Ward 3 Hilberg was beaten by Kellett, 411 to 312, and in Ward 4 Faris, the incumbent, prevailed over LaVallee, 247 to 205, and was quick to say that he agreed with the Straight Arrows on many issues and foresaw no problem working them.
The ballot question to shrink the council to six and directly elect the mayor directly was adopted by a majority of 63 percent as 2,134 voted yes and 1,241 voted no. It carried five wards, failing poignantly enough only in Ward 3, and there by just a dozen votes.
"This is not what we expected to hear," said Colby, who found himself with Kellett in a minority of two on the council, added "we must build any bridges that are possible."
Gilbert, who chaired the Democratic City Committee, and her Republican counterpart, Tom Rice, agreed that neither party ran a campaign to match the effort of the Straight Arrows. She counted the failure of Democratic candidates as their greatest mistake. Rice suggested the outcome of the election marked the progress of a drift away from partisan politics, "It's not necessarily a bad idea," he remarked. "I'm just worried that you would only get good candidates when there is a controversy."
Bernard Boutin, who served as mayor from 1955 to 1959 before heading John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in New Hampshire, said "I wasn't the least bit surprised. The people I talked to were hostile to the way the city has been run," he continued. "They felt it was a closed shop. It seemed the outgoing administration was talking more to each other than to the public." Boutin called the election "a prelude to a major change" and predicted that "the days of the city manager form of government are numbered."
"Laconia is experiencing an uprising," remarked Hilberg, the principal architect of the Straight Arrows' triumph. "The Straight Arrows did not cause it. We discovered it and gave it voice."
A week after the election, 18 city department heads and managers petitioned the Public Employee Labor Relations Board to form a collective bargaining unit, an initiative led by Fire Chief Rick Judkins. Chris Henchey of the State Employees Association insisted that the timing was strictly coincidental and said discussions had been underway for some time.
"I DON'T BELIEVE THERE IS ONE SURPRISE"
Two week after the election Tardif, now mayor-elect, sketched his priorities in an interview with Warren Huse of The Evening Citizen. Although Tardif said it was "premature to state chapter and verse," Huse reported that the new council "has a definite agenda."
"I expect we'll have a detailed agenda ready for the first work session in January," Tardif said. He said that apart for organizational issues, accelerating the abatement process and addressing the municipal budget were immediate priorities. "I believe it is the intent of the council, and I will promote it, to develop multi-level budgets, starting with a core or bare-bones, version," he said, adding that city departments, including the School Board, should not submit budgets then ask where they will be cut. "They are going to have to operate the premise that all they're going to get is a core budget," he stressed.
Tardif indicated the council would propose a handful of charter amendments "to return certain authority to the council where it belongs" as well as place petitioned proposals for a tax cap and non-partisan elections, which the existing council rejected, on the ballot.
Tardif discounted concerns expressed by some about the intentions of the Straight Arrow majority. "I think most of that is going to subside very quickly," he said. "People should watch what we do, Actions and deeds speak much better than words."
The inaugural meeting of the new City Council was held on January 30, before a large crowd in the High School auditorium. After the inaugural ceremonies, Tardif delivered a brief speech. He began by recalling that in the last decade the assessed valuation had risen 375 percent and the amount raised by property taxes had risen 275 percent, while household income had increased only 46percent. At the same time, he said the population had increased 9 percent and the school population had decreased 20 percent, but the budget had grown at twice the pace of inflation.
"My administration will keep its pledge and not increase the amount of money raised by taxes," Tardif declared. "We must all make hard choices." He called on all segments of the community to participate with "an attitude of give and take in a spirit of cooperation and to communicate their concerns and ideas and to work toward solutions." He assured his listeners "your government will be open to everyone."
Then, to the surprise of many, including at least two councilors, Tardif turned to the business agenda. First, by a vote of 7 to 2, with Colby and Kellett dissenting, the council's 20 committees and sub-committees were reduced to nine. Next Tardif brought up a series of charter amendments, beginning with a proposal for the City Council, not the Governor-in Council, to appoint the Police Commission.
Kellett said "I was quite surprised to find this packet before me tonight and personally knew nothing about it." Tardif said that after being sworn in a week after the election, he began soliciting the opinion of councilors on a number of measures, a process he called "perfectly acceptable standard operating procedures." Sargent offered that he had not seen the agenda any sooner than any other member of the council. "Two or three councilors are in the dark," said Colby, "contrary to your campaign promise of openness in government."
With Colby and Kellett dissenting, the council by successive votes of 7 to 2, approved charter amendments authorizing the council to approve the appointment of department heads; to create, consolidate or abolish departments as well as define their functions and duties; and to introduce a merit system for classifying, promoting and compensating personnel. In addition, the council voted to recommend the "Tax Vote," as drafted by Hilberg, as a charter amendment. A public hearing on all the charter amendments was scheduled for February 8.
The council also voted to inform the state that the city was no longer interested in negotiating the purchase of property on North Main Street for construction of a fourth elementary school. And the vote of the prior council directing the city manager to seek a grant to convert the Mr. Grocer building to affordable housing was rescinded.
Colby was livid. "The arrogance of it annoyed me," he said. "I don't care if they say they had no formal meeting or not. This thing was orchestrated."
Amid the furor, Tardif declared "I do not apologize for doing this. I don't believe there is one surprise. There is one thing this council didn't do," he insisted, "we never had a secret meeting. I'm disappointed in the audience," he continued, "and must say, one has to be little to belittle."
"I hate to think," former councilor Bolduc told the Evening Citizen, "the city will have to put up with these clowns for two years."
(Editor's note: Next year, The Daily Sun will publish an article detailing the stormy two years of Straight Arrow rule. Then, in 2016, the newspaper will report the details of the equally important election of 1991.)
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