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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau talks with Telegraph reporters and editors Wednesday, February 24, 2010.
Monday, March 15, 2010

Concerns on illegal vote stopped it

EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws that protect the public’s freedom of information and right to know. Sunshine Week is an annual examination of government’s responsiveness to citizens. The project is spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and includes the participation of newspapers across the country.

NASHUA – The former president of the Board of Aldermen stopped what he deemed a closed-door “vote” on whether to grant an extension to a developer.

The issue surfaced in e-mails sent by Mayor Donnalee Lozeau. Through a Right-to-Know Law request, The Telegraph obtained hundreds of e-mails and memos sent by the mayor between Oct. 12, 2009, and Jan. 11.

The newspaper made the request following a discussion with Lozeau on whether she considered memos to her staff to be public documents. Initially, she said she considered staff memos to be private.

In fulfilling the Right-to-Know request, Lozeau provided e-mails and memos sent by her, her executive secretary and her communications director. She told The Telegraph that she didn’t include communications exempted by the Right-to-Know Law, such as discussions of pending litigation, including of the city’s efforts to acquire Pennichuck Water Works. That case is now before the N.H. Supreme Court.

In the exchange concerning the closed-door vote, the city’s Economic Development Director Thomas Galligani wrote an e-mail Oct. 15 that was distributed to a number of people, including city officials and former Alderman-at-Large Steven Bolton, then the board’s president.

Galligani said he had received a request from Renaissance Developers asking to extend the period in which the company could conduct environmental testing and negotiate with adjacent property owners. Renaissance is hoping to develop riverfront property near the Veterans Memorial Bridge entrance to the city.

In his e-mail, Galligani asked the recipients to indicate “YES” or “NO” if they thought the city’s Business and Industrial Development Authority should grant the extension.

According to the e-mail thread, Bolton contacted city attorney James McNamee, raising concerns about whether Galligani’s request was lawful.

McNamee wrote back saying that he believed Bolton’s concern was “well founded,” adding, “This e-mail seems to invite a vote without a meeting, which is contrary to RSA 91-A.” That statute is the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

That then prompted an exchange between Lozeau and Bolton.

“May I be assured that the ongoing e-mail discussion will be ended?” Bolton wrote, addressing the mayor in an e-mail sent to McNamee and Lozeau. “I also suggest that all of your supervisory employees be made aware that these e-mail, phone in, or other votes outside of duly noted meetings are not permitted and will not be condoned,” Bolton wrote.

Lozeau responded to Bolton in an e-mail also sent to McNamee, Galligani and Jack Tulley, chairman of BIDA.

“Alderman Bolton, This is a result of a misunderstanding,” Lozeau wrote. “Had I realized in time that he (Galligani) had planned to ask for a vote, I would have of course been sure this didn’t happen in this forum. A meeting will be scheduled and properly noticed to resolve this issue.”

Bolton responded to Lozeau, “It is another example of high level personnel in your administration ‘misunderstanding’ the law as it applies to their job. I do not understand why this continues to occur and why you dismiss it so readily.”

In the final e-mail of the thread, dated Oct. 16, Lozeau shot back, “I am not certain I understand the examples you refer to, and it continuing to ‘occur.’ I do not dismiss it ‘readily’ this error is easily corrected and in this instance it was not just a matter of my staff” – referring to the BIDA members.

On Oct. 19, Lozeau sent a memo to Galligani, Tulley and Don Zizzi, the BIDA vice chairman.

“I know that you, the committee members nor Mr. Galligani would knowingly violate the Right to Know Law,” Lozeau wrote. “So, in the interest of full disclosure I request that the e-mail be discussed at the next BIDA meeting and that the attached e-mail document be included with the minutes of the meeting.”

Attached was Galligani’s e-mail asking for the yes or no vote.

“My intent is to be certain that the error made is corrected to the best of our ability. I am sure we can address the issue that prompted the e-mail at the next meeting,” Lozeau wrote.

During her two-plus years in office, Lozeau has portrayed herself as a proponent of open government and the people’s right to now. She has largely done that, as the above example illustrates. She also has been forthcoming in talking with reporters and, by many accounts, dealing with the public.

But there have been exceptions, notably dealing with the teachers contract.

Lozeau acknowledges that she broke the law by attending an illegal meeting between the Boards of Education and Aldermen in March 2008 during a time of contentious negotiations with teachers, who had threatened to strike.

The fruit of the meeting turned out to be a contract worth $203 million over four years. Many in the city have blamed that contract for the $6 million shortfall over two years in the school budget.

Following a ruling by a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge that deemed the meeting illegal, Lozeau asked for legislation to extend contract negotiations further away from the public’s eye.

And prior to The Telegraph’s Right-to-Know request, there may have been confusion over which memos between her and the city department heads are public communication. The memo that sparked the discussion was a request from Lozeau to the department heads to submit level-funded budget proposals this year.

The bulk of Lozeau’s e-mails and memos that The Telegraph obtained concerned the prosaic day-to-day duties of being mayor. That included thanking people for volunteering to serve on committees or public officials for attending programs or events.

An Oct. 28 memo to division directors announced that the city’s Green Team was taking inventory of all the “green initiatives” in the city. The memo didn’t say what types of initiatives, but they have included recycling, using biodiesel fuel or energy-saving light bulbs. In the memo, Lozeau urged the directors to forward information about their division’s efforts.

In a Jan. 8 letter to the state Department of Transportation, Lozeau indicated the city’s interest in applying for funds through a congestion mitigation and air quality program.

There were memos to staff related to a collapsed sewer line on East Dunstable Road. Citing the city’s revised ordinances, Lozeau authorized an emergency contract to address the problem.

“The residence at 33 East Dunstable Road experienced a collapsed sewer line where it connects to the city’s main line in the street,” Lozeau wrote in a Dec. 2 memo to the Board of Aldermen. The memo was sent a week after the repair work wasn finished.

“This constituted an emergency because sewerage leaving the property was draining directly into the ground and had the potential for serious back-up.”

The city didn’t do the repairs because the line was 12 feet deep, the mayor wrote. Three bids were received, and the contract was awarded to the low bidder, Crisp Contracting Inc., based at 111 Lock St., at $13,400.

A Dec. 29 memo to division directors announced the mayor’s request that budgets prepared for Fiscal Year 2011 should include no spending increase.

“While crafting your budget, I know you begin with core necessities,” Lozeau wrote. “As with last year’s budget, I would encourage you to keep track of some of the items you may be compelled to cut and prioritize them,” she wrote.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.