Click below to watch the entire forum via TV 23 on YouTube
MANCHESTER NH — Minutes before the Sept. 9 forum at Memorial High School began, four of the five candidates gathered in a classroom near the stage entrance.
The 6 p.m. start was slightly delayed, to give people a chance to file into the auditorium. Most in attendance were still circulating in the lobby, where tables loaded up with campaign material were on display.
Glenn Ouellette asked the others if they would agree to remove suit coats because of the sweltering heat.
Someone else noted that Mayor Ted Gatsas was holding his “tele-town hall,” and so they briefly tuned in to listen.
“Is that a recording?” asked Joyce Craig. “It sounds like it.”
“It does sound like a recording,” said Patrick Arnold, as Gatsas’ voice streamed from an iPhone on speaker, saying he wanted to talk about the recent shooting death in the city’s North End.
Maxine Mosley, vice president of the Manchester Education Association, interrupted to say it was time to take the stage. As the four candidates took their places, an empty podium with a white name card that read “Gatsas” separated them, at center stage.
“The Mayor chose not to be here, and they did confirm with me,” said Mosley, who said the MEA would release a statement about the mayor’s absence sometime after the forum. “For now, we just want this to be a good experience for the other candidates.”
That statement didn’t line up with a comment Gatsas made last week to the Union Leader, saying the forum conflicted with a previously scheduled virtual town hall as part of his “Talk with Ted” tour
Arnold, Craig, Ouellette and Jawad Alibaba Shaikh spent nearly two hours responding to questions posed by moderator Mark MacKenzie, a former president of NH AFL-CIO and retired firefighter.
Mosley also noted that MacKenzie stepped in last minute to moderate, filling the void left by Scott Spradling, who advised the forum organizers last Wednesday he would not be able to moderate, after learning Gatsas was not going to attend.
About 150 people, paper fans in hand, sat in on the forum, which was co-sponsored by Granite State Organizing Youth Project, Every Child Matters in NH, and the YWCA.
Most of the questions had an educational component, such as how each of them would make sure more students of color have access to higher level classes and how would they as mayor educate and protect our children in the wake of the city’s current crime wave.
All four stuck to the issues for the most part.
Shaikh was critical of the police department for not making a quick arrest in the Denise Robert murder, and Ouellette mentioned the chronic accountability issues the city has with its budget.
Arnold and Craig took more swipes at Gatsas. Arnold said he had been calling for debates throughout his campaign. He said Gatsas has failed to promote the city, or communicate effectively.
In her closing remarks, Craig held up a pamphlet that was circulated before the forum.
“[Gatsas’] regard for education is evident by him not being here this evening,” said Craig. “And if you want more proof, look at this brochure. He didn’t even answer the questions that were presented to each one of us. We all took time to answer the questions with thoughtful answers, and the mayor basically said ‘check my record,'” Craig said.
The brochure did not include a photograph or answers by Glenn Ouellette.
Afterward, Jimmy Lehoux, who is a candidate for Board of School Committee in Ward 8, says he is still undecided. He said he walked away without gaining much that would help him decide which way to vote on Sept. 15.
Lehoux said some of the ideas floated by the four candidates had potential, but nobody talked about how to pay for initiatives, like state-of-the-art technology in the classroom and boosting the city’s police force.
“The biggest question I walked away with was how do these ideas get paid for? I thought many of the ideas were good in theory, but how would they fund them with an already strapped budget?”
He said he’s waiting to hear some “outside of the box” ideas.
“I’m not sure any candidate will shake it up like it needs to be shaken up,” he said.
As posts began circulating on Facebook, reaction to Gatsas’ absence was mixed, with several supporters reinforcing the fact that the mayor had made it known that he had a conflict, and that the organizers were just trying to make the mayor look bad. Others said his lack of attendance showed a lack of caring about voters.
Samantha Piatt, who is chief of staff for Gatsas, said Wednesday night that the mayor never accepted the invitation to the forum, which was received in his office on Aug. 6. The letter requested a confirmation by Aug. 14.
Piatt said the mayor’s 30-minute telephone town hall was a live event conducted from his office, and not pre-recorded, and that it was “attended” by 410 people who called via a toll-free number to listen in.
“The Mayor gave an overview and then took questions,” Piatt said, while an operator acting as moderator managed the call-in event.
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