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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nashua aldermen to get more information about changes to city contracts from mayor

NASHUA – City aldermen are calling on the mayor to provide full disclosure about any changes made to contracts that already have been approved by city boards.

Aldermen passed a measure Tuesday that requires Mayor Donnalee Lozeau to notify the Finance Committee within 10 days if she, or her successor, alters contracts that have already been approved. ...

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NASHUA – City aldermen are calling on the mayor to provide full disclosure about any changes made to contracts that already have been approved by city boards.

Aldermen passed a measure Tuesday that requires Mayor Donnalee Lozeau to notify the Finance Committee within 10 days if she, or her successor, alters contracts that have already been approved.

Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess sponsored a change to legislation that already had been introduced, saying the measure is intended to keep elected officials and the public informed about city business.

“This is an open government, transparency reform in the Nashua revised ordinances,” Donchess said.

Previously, the mayor only was required to consult the Finance Committee if contract changes would increase the price tag for a contract by $10,000 or more.

That threshold gave the mayor the flexibility to change the terms of a contract or make minor modifications without notifying aldermen.

The issue came into focus earlier this year when city officials learned that a pair of contracts for Nashua’s branding initiative were changed with little notice to the public.

One contract was terminated, and work that originally was scheduled to be performed by a Tennessee branding company was transferred to a firm in Nashua. Payments to the local company increased by $9,500, just below the threshold that would have required disclosure to the Finance Committee.

The city’s economic development director acknowledged earlier this year that the contract revision was made with the intention of keeping it out of the committee’s hands, to increase the speed and efficiency of the project.

In response, Donchess first proposed requiring the Finance Committee to sign off on all changes to the price or scope of work of any contract that previously was approved by the committee.

The proposal was scaled back Tuesday. It now requires only that the mayor inform the Finance Committee about her decisions after she takes action.

Despite the changes, Lozeau remained opposed to the idea Tuesday. She said complying with new disclosure requirements would be a burden on city staff.

“I understand that people were unhappy about how the branding initiative played out,” she said. “I certainly wish it would have played out differently. I know that it’s probably not intended to be punitive, but it feels punitive.

“I feel like if you would have known what you needed to know on the branding initiative, this legislation likely wouldn’t have come in.”

Lozeau said contracts are changed frequently, and giving notice to the Finance Committee would invite aldermen to second-guess the mayor’s decisions on a regular basis.

“I can tell you that I’ll try to work harder, but to actually pass an ordinance to ask me to tell you something in a 10-day time frame, I think, is above what’s necessary to solve this problem,” she said.

Donchess acknowledged that the proposal sprang from the board’s experience with the branding initiative, but said it wasn’t meant to be punitive. Rather, Donchess said it was aimed at addressing a transparency gap in city government.

“The only additional requirement is that either the amended contract be passed on to the Finance Committee, or that a short memo be prepared and sent to the Finance Committee,” he said. “And what does that serve? It informs the Finance Committee, the Board of Aldermen and, most importantly, the public as to what is happening with important city contracts and obligations.”

Board members were split on the proposal, passing it 8-7. Donchess picked up support for the measure from fellow at-large Aldermen David Deane, Lori Wilshire and Dan Moriarty.

Also voting in favor of it were Ward 1 Alderman Sean McGuinness, Ward 3 Alderman David Schoneman, Ward 5 Alderman Michael Soucy and Ward 9 Alderman Ken Siegel.

Others on the board were ambivalent. Ward 6 Alderman Paul Chasse said he loved the compromises Donchess made but couldn’t support the idea. Instead, he asked the mayor to make a verbal commitment to do everything in her power to notify aldermen of contract changes. He recommended tabling the ordinance and reviving it only if it seems necessary in the future.

Lozeau came close to meeting his request but stopped short of a commitment.

“I will always do my best to inform the Finance Committee or anybody that asks a question,” Lozeau said, adding. “I don’t want to make a commitment I can’t commit to.”

Siegel said he appreciated the mayor’s position but still felt the new ordinance was necessary.

“I believe this is nothing more … (than) an open government initiative,” he said. “How is more information, which is not that difficult to give us, a harm?”

Voting against the ordinance were Chasse, Aldermen-at-Large Brian McCarthy and Diane Sheehan, Ward 2 Alderman Richard Dowd, Ward 4 Alderman Pam Brown, Ward 7 Alderman June Caron, and Ward 8 Alderman Mary Ann
Melizzi-Golja.

Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).