After more than three years of badgering the city to open public bathrooms at the downtown Visitor’s Center – even filing a lawsuit against the city citing human rights violations – this one-man potty patrol’s persistence may be paying off.
Glenn Ouellette has organized a rally Tuesday at Veterans Park. Then, he’s off to fight City Hall. Again.
He first brought up the issue in 2014, just after the city budget was passed. It was a quality of life issue – no public potties meant a lack of facilities for the daily bus commuters and tourists, but it was especially inconvenient for people with no place else to “go.”
Because many downtown businesses have a policy about bathroom use for customers only, the homeless population would resort to other non-sanctioned public spaces. Ouellette even photographed some human feces he found in one of the back alleys just off Elm. The trickle-down effect was making the city streets soiled and stinky – and unhealthy, and causing problems for business owners.
Back in 2014, Ouellette noted that, despite overriding the tax cap to maintain city services, the loss of potty privileges was worth mentioning.
“We’ve actually lost services. We no longer have public bathrooms. We don’t want the homeless to be around the downtown storefronts, and I can understand why, but they’re humans as well and they have to ‘go.’ So now, if they’re caught ‘going’ around a tree, or around the building … they get arrested. The judge charges them a $50 fine, and they can’t afford it, so they spend a day in county jail. How does that help our city? It’s a mockery… shutting down a public building – to the public who pay taxes for it – because you can’t solve a problem? Something’s wrong,” Ouellette said during his three minutes of public comment.
Fast forward to August 2017. Ouellette hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit. Still, no mention by the Board of Aldermen about his many restroom requests.
By September, I agreed to take a ride with Ouellette to check out the bathrooms at Livingston Park. He’d heard that they were not locked during park hours. This, he figured, was going to help make his point – not only was it wrong to deny citizens the right to “go” in a public bathroom, but the city was apparently favoring park-goers in the North End, with free and open access to toilets.
Sure enough, Ouellette was able to walk right in. He made note of a security camera tucked in a corner. He went into the men’s room and came out to report that it was in pretty good shape, all things considered.
You can watch the field trip footage below:
Ouellette thought that would get things moving. But still, nothing.
He decided it was time to step things up.
In October the board of aldermen finally started to take Ouellette’s legal threat to heart. They asked Deputy Public Works Director Timothy Clougherty to look into the feasibility of installing a security camera outside the restrooms on Elm Street, and opening them on a trial basis.
During the course of the meeting they were informed that the bathrooms had not been open during the recent downtown Chilifest – or rather, they were opened and quickly shut again, because of the stench.
“I’m appalled we had a chilifest and only had that bathroom open a half hour,” said Alderman Joe Levasseur, who then moved – jokingly, I think – that Ouellette should be the guy hired as bathroom monitor. Ouellette, who was seated in the chambers, seemed agreeable. Levasseur was offering $7.25 per hour.
“He said yes,” Levasseur noted. “For $7.25 an hour, he has a job.”
Ouellette points out now that not only did Levasseur offer him a job at below minimum wage, but now they want to pay someone as much as $100K annually, including benefits, to be a bathroom monitor.
Anyway, that was one of the first meetings where potty talk was actually on the agenda. Alderman Tony Sapienza said he was shocked to learn from Ouellette that while the city pays Aramark to clean the Elm Street bathrooms as part of a contract, even with the bathrooms perpetually closed, the cleaning wasn’t, apparently happening.
Sort of like flushing tax money down the hopper.
“You say we’re paying a contractor to clean it three times a week and we’re not using it?” asked Sapienza.
At some point the aldermen talked about opening the downtown bathrooms for 30 days on a trial basis, but that never happened. Instead, the city parks director Don Pinard was tasked with figuring out how much it would cost to hire someone to monitor the bathrooms.
By December, Ouellette was crying foul.
The Committee on Administration/Information Services and had a long discussion about bathroom maintenance, and associated costs. The first ballpark figure for a full-time attendant was $105K, including benefits. Alternatively, the city could pay for a full-time security guard plus pay Aramark $15,000 to “keep cleaning” the bathrooms, although Ouellette wonders why the line item in the city budget for Aramark’s bathroom cleaning services persisted over the past three years that they’d been closed.
I encourage you to read the discussion. I’ll paste it in here:
Turns out the “attendant” at Livingston Park is just a parks employee who, as part of his job, also picks up trash around the park and the trails, and tends to the athletic fields. And, another $52,000 was tacked on to the estimate due to the “deplorable” conditions of the bathrooms – years of wear and tear and apparently no regular maintenance caused rusted and rotted stalls, a need for new epoxy for the floor and a new bubbler.
And an estimate for nearly $17,000 for three security cameras.
Below is a slideshow of the current bathroom conditions as presented to the committee in December, along with an estimate for: $105K for a full-time attendant and supplies; $45K for Aramark cleaning and a security guard; $52K for renovations and security cameras.
By January, Ouellette’s high hopes for resolution were tanking. The monthly committee meeting was supposed to include more discussion on the updated cost evaluation. But in a meeting that lasted 1 minute and 36 seconds, the committee skipped the agenda item and adjourned the meeting.
However, the meeting packet included some updated figures, which were never discussed. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s being proposed anymore, but it looks like a great job for anyone interested in making about $70K to be on latrine duty:
Ouellette would just like someone to take this seriously.
He’s organized a rally for Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. at Veterans Park. He’s inviting anyone who favors solving the potty problem to join him. If enough people show up, he’d like to form a human chain and walk from the bathrooms to City Hall for the 7 p.m. Board of Aldermen meeting. If not, he’ll go it alone.
- He would like to see the downtown bathrooms open between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, for the hundreds of bus commuters and tourists who come through and, yes, even the homeless people;
- He’d like the bathrooms to be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, which will cover a lot of special events, like parades and the dozens of road races the city hosts. It’s still fewer hours than Livingston potty hours.
- He’d like the city to look into grant-funding – for the security cameras and bubbler, as they did at Livingston Park. He doesn’t believe it should cost so much to bring bathrooms back.
- He wants to know if it’s feasible to pay someone to look after Veterans and Victory parks, as well as Stanton Plaza, including the bathrooms at the Visitor’s Center – maybe scoop up trash, pick up cigarette butts, tend to the flowers. It seems like a worthwhile task in a city that is pushing its parks as recreation and tourist centers.
In fact, Ouellette says he can’t believe the numbers being floated for what goes back to his simple 2014 request, that the city keep bathrooms open. If the city fears drug overdoses or other crimes being committed there – aside from what comes out naturally in the aftermath of a Chilifest – then they need to address the real problem, not just lock the doors.
“If they don’t at least make a stand on it and as a board say something like ‘we’ll make a decision in 30 days,’ then I don’t know what they’re waiting for. This has gone on too long. If they need to repair the bathrooms to make them safe and usable, then they can put it in next year’s budget and even look for a grant. Right now the bathrooms work. I heard they’re proposing buying a $3,000 vanity for the ladies bathroom, and thousands on more economical toilet tanks. What are they buying, golden toilet seats?”
Ouellette says the punch list for repairs and upgrades reminds him of the bloated price tags during the Reagan years that had taxpayers shaking their heads over obscenely priced Pentagon toilet seats.
“The cost list they’ve presented is a lie. It’s not the true cost,” says Ouellette. He’s asked around. A downtown business owner says he got some great security cameras for about $1,000 each which work like a charm, and would shave $13K off the city’s estimate of $16,992. And he also spoke to Manchester Police, who said if the city wants them to, they can have their downtown officers and foot patrol do spot checks every hour. It’s just one more stop on the beat.
Or maybe, says Ouellette, it’s just time for the city to talk to his attorney.
“It’s been six months since I hired an attorney. I don’t want to bring a lawsuit against the city, and I’m not asking for a dime. But what else am I supposed to do? Nobody seems to be taking this seriously. I have a hard time with the city paying to clean bathrooms that aren’t open to the public, and now we find they are in need of thousands of dollars in repairs?”
Ouellette thinks part of the problem is the messenger. He is a fixture during public comment at every meeting. He speaks his mind. He’s run for mayor a couple of times. Right now, he says he is only interested in doing what’s right for the taxpayers in the name of human dignity, and doesn’t mind watchdogging elected officials.
“To me, it’s called common sense, to make sure a city like Manchester has working public bathrooms. Why are they making a big thing out of nothing? Because it’s me,” Ouellette says.
It’s hard to say why nobody seems to care about bathrooms. Maybe the Visitor Center as such should be expanded as some other more practical city service hub, like an office for Intown Manchester, since most of their events happen at the park anyway. The few times I tried to visit the Visitor’s Center last season, it was either closed during daytime hours, or there were homeless people sacked out in sleeping bags under the canopy. Either way, it wasn’t serving its highest purpose.
I think having access to a public restroom that’s not in a restaurant or library, or tucked away inside City Hall, seems logical.
Why not retrofit an empty Elm Street storefront into a public bathroom/visitor’s center emporium where tourists can stop to pee, buy some Manchester-brand swag, pick up a city flag and a few books by John Clayton before exploring the city?
In the wake of our addiction epidemic we’ve taken a stand against giving change to panhandlers to preserve the integrity of our streets, and banned smoking to keep the homeless from taking over our public spaces.
Are we giving up on access to bathrooms because, if we open them up, they’ll become drug dens?
I don’t know the answer. But now that the city’s looking at the dollars and cents of it all, it appears the need for repairs and fixes – and money being wasted on maintenance – are issues that should be addressed.
Historically, the old original underground bathrooms that sit next to the current ones at Veterans Park (also always locked) are considered a bastion of our city’s history – built of marble, oak, and brass, with eight stations for women and 18 for men, plus digs for an on-duty attendant to do whatever it is attendants do. At the turn of the 20th century it was a point of pride for Manchester, and proof positive that a city government should provide “comfort stations” as a matter of public health.
Eventually, Manchester’s luxurious investment in public health fell into disrepair, and the beautiful bathrooms were shuttered. About six years ago, elected officials toyed with preserving them, getting them on the historic registry and maybe creating a “museum” of sorts, with weekend toilet tours.
Although Ouellette didn’t say it, maybe he fears that by the time the city sinks another $52,000 into bathroom repairs, they will decide they can’t afford to monitor them after all, and we’ll end up with four useless bathrooms in the heart of our downtown.
So how about this: Revive the museum idea and charge enough admission for a city “flush fund” so we can, eventually, just build some more new bathrooms.