LACONIA — City voters will select a new mayor in Tuesday’s election and determine two contested City Council races.
Two years ago, the citywide turnout for the municipal election was 14 percent. There were three contested City Council races that year, as well as a special election for state representative.
This year’s active race for mayor has the potential to attract more people to the polls. The mayor’s race was uncontested in 2017.
In the current race, Councilor Andrew Hosmer and State Rep. Peter Spanos have waged a competitive mayoral contest, including three campaign forums, prevalent advertising, and dozens of campaign signs.
A possible indication that voter turnout could increase this year may be found in absentee ballot requests.
City Clerk Cheryl Hebert said Friday that 193 absentee ballots have been requested and 147 have been returned. Two years ago, 60 were requested and 48 returned.
Councilor Bruce Cheney said the absentee ballot numbers could bode well for increased turnout.
“If people are interested enough to get an absentee ballot, interest is high and hopefully we will see a significant number of folks show up,” he said.
There are 11,105 registered voters in Laconia.
Campaign issues include city spending, law and order, fire department staffing and the question of whether there is a possibility that Laconia could become a sanctuary city, of which New Hampshire currently has none.
Spanos contends there is a threat Laconia could become such a city, where local officials aren’t aggressive in enforcing federal immigration law.
He said a couple of other New Hampshire cities have considered this and many municipalities outside the state have taken this stance.
“I’ve done some research on the subject,” Spanos said. “One of the causal factors is a surplus of low-income housing."
He praises legal immigration and the melting pot that is America, saying his own grandparents were Greek immigrants.
Hosmer opposes sanctuary cities, but notes there has been no movement, discussion or consideration of forming one here.
He said it is a contrived issue that has been divisive and distracted attention from issues affecting young people, senior citizens and public safety.
“That’s the stuff we should be talking about, not getting involved in this who’s really an American and who’s not,” Hosmer said.
A Spanos door-hanger card says, “Due to City Hall profligate spending, the tax cap is in jeopardy, creating the real possibility that city property taxes will rise higher.”
He has also been stressing law and order. In the same door hanger, he said “Drug dealers distribute lethal products that often go unpunished.”
Hosmer said the city successfully works within a tax cap that tends to allow only small increases in spending.
Hosmer, a former assistant district attorney, says the city can’t arrest its way out of the opioid crisis, and favors drug recovery programs as a way to better tackle the problem.
He wants to boost economic development, add one position to the round-the-clock firefighter staffing level, talks about investing in education, supports the city’s investment in the Colonial Theatre refurbishment and praises Police Chief Matt Canfield’s record as a crime fighter.
In other races, incumbent Mark Haynes is trying to defend his Ward 4 City Council position against Brenda Baer, who held the position for a dozen years before Haynes unseated her two years ago.
In an interview, Baer said the council needs to be more judicious with municipal expenditures.
“I do kind of oppose spending city tax money on some of the huge programs where you’re pouring money in it time and time again,” Baer said. “I refer, of course, to the Colonial Theatre, which we’re committed to and are going to end up owning a piece of property that I don’t know how we’re going to run it after we get it.”
Baer has said she regrets her vote in favor of the city’s initial $1.4 million loan to the Belknap Economic Development Council that got the proposal off the ground. The theater refurbishment is intended to spur downtown revitalization.
Baer raised four children in Laconia and worked in several jobs locally, including as a department head at Lakes Region General Hospital.
Haynes is retired as the facilities director at the Laconia Clinic, He is a graduate of Plymouth State University with a degree in English literature.
He said he wrestled with whether or not to boost the city’s level of support for the theater refurbishment, but decided in favor of it after being heartened by the involvement of Rusty McLear, who plans to build market-rate apartments as part of the project,
On July 22, the City Council gave unanimous final approval for $6.7 million in bonds to help pay for the project, growing the city’s overall financial commitment to $8.1 million.
In the council discussion, Haynes explained his support.
“If we don’t believe in ourselves, how do we expect other people to believe in us?” he asked.
Insurance agent Sarah Jenna and property manager Tony Felch are competing for the Ward 6 council seat being vacated by Andrew Hosmer in his bid to become mayor.
Felch is the Ward 6 moderator and Jenna is on the city’s Planning Board.
One area of difference between the two candidates involves proposed regulation of Airbnb-type, short-term rentals.
A council consensus supports requiring that owners occupy such rentals in portions of the city outside The Weirs and potentially outside Long Bay and South Down homeowners association areas.
The Planning Board forwarded to the council a less-restrictive regulatory system that would have allowed short-term rentals in most areas without the requirement that they be owner-occupied.
Jenna favors the Planning Board approach, saying it includes adequate safeguards to protect neighbors if someone runs a short-term rental in a disruptive way.
There have been a few instances in the last couple years in which neighbors have complained about parking, noise, or other problems associated with short-term rentals, but most operate without a problem.
“We heard from quite a few people who said these rentals have given them backup income after a divorce, or for a retirement fund. There’s a lot of tourism here. Letting one or two bad eggs spoil it for everybody isn’t something I agree with.”
Felch supports the more restrictive approach favored by a consensus of the present council.
“If the owner is there, they’re going to be keeping a tab on it and you’re not going to have the wild parties or the parking problems,” he said.
Felch, who has been a local property manager for 28 years, holds a number of volunteer positions, including Leavitt Park Community Club president and head of the NH Billiards League.
Jenna, who was born and raised in Laconia and has children in Laconia public schools, said she decided to get involved in local government when school budgets were being cut.
There are no contested school board seats in the upcoming general election, but Laura Dunn is waging a write-in campaign to succeed Ward 2 board member Barbara Luther, who is not seeking re-election.
Dunn is asking people to write in her name in the Nov. 5 election and to fill in the oval on the ballot next to the write-in line. She needs to receive 35 votes to gain the seat.
She will be standing outside the Ward 2 polling place to hand out a sample ballot and to show people how to cast a write-in vote.
There will be two questions on the ballot for voters to decide.
One asks whether sports book retail locations should be allowed to operate in the city.
Under a bill approved by the state Legislature, businesses wishing to offer sports betting would apply to the New Hampshire Lottery Commission.
The commission will negotiate with the businesses as to the percentage the state would get from transactions. The state will apply the money toward public education.
The other question is an attempt to take advantage of legislation under which the city would no longer be required to hold a public hearing if it receives a gift, donation or grant of less than $10,000. Such a donation would still have to be placed on an agenda and formally accepted by the City Council.
Polls will be open Tuesday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The City Council had the option of extending those hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — as is typical for state elections — but opted not to do so.
The polling places:
Ward 1 – The Beane Conference Center, 35 Blueberry Lane.
Ward 2 – St. Andre Bessette Parish Hall, 12 Gilford Ave.
Ward 3 – Laconia Middle School, 150 McGrath St.
Ward 4 – New Covenant Christian Church, 31 Lindsay Court.
Ward 5 – Woodland Heights Elementary School, 225 Winter St.
Ward 6 – Leavitt Park Clubhouse, 334 Elm St.