File this in the "we are ALREADY making a difference" category! http://www.unionleader.com/Articles_show.html?article=59128&archive=1
City Hall: Baines seeks legal hurdles to budget cap
By RILEY YATES
Union Leader Staff
THE PETITION to cap city spending took a big step forward last week, after the City Clerk's Office certified it had received enough signatures to make it on the November ballot.
In response, Mayor Robert Baines floated the possibility that the charter amendment may not pass legal muster. He said he will ask aldermen to direct city solicitors and the finance office to conduct a detailed review of it.
"In the meantime, my review has led my to believe that there may be conflicts with this amendment with other provisions of the current charter," Baines said in a written statement.
Baines also said he's concerned about "serious issues that have arisen in communities that have adopted spending caps." He referenced Nashua, which has a spending cap and has yet to adopt a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, but stopped short of saying he will oppose Manchester's proposed cap.
Karl Beisel, who is spearheading the spending cap effort, said getting the signatures certified cleared one of the biggest hurdles his group anticipates. He maintained the language is simple and will not have legal problems.
"I can't even imagine what the mayor is talking about," Beisel said.
Jeff Kassel, a candidate for mayor who is also involved in the effort, said the number of signatures shows that people want the question on the ballot.
"It is very dangerous for the mayor or anyone else to try to attack this spending cap now," said Kassel. "If Bob Baines wants to create a legal impediment, he's going to be blamed for that."
In drawing up the petition, members of the Concerned Taxpayers of Manchester simplified language from spending caps from Nashua and Franklin, said Beisel. They consulted Fred Teeboom, who wrote Nashua's, but the group did not run the language by an attorney.
The petition ended up with 480 signatures more than the 3,509 it needed, Deputy City Clerk Carol Johnson wrote. The requirement was based on one-fifth of the total votes cast in November 2003, which saw the second lowest turnout since 1929.
Baines aide Michael Colby would not say last week what legal concerns the mayor was referencing. They would be premature to discuss until after a legal opinion has been rendered, he said.
City Solicitor Tom Clark said he won't talk until after his office completes a review. Finance Officer Kevin Clougherty also said he was not prepared to comment on the cap.
The charter amendment would limit city spending to the rate of inflation over the three previous years. There's an escape clause that allows aldermen to override it with 11 of the board's 14 votes.
Mayoral candidate Frank Guinta, who favors the petition, said Baines should take a clear stand one way or the other, instead of scrutinizing it technically.
"This is yet again another example of how the mayor is passive to the voters' desires, yet so aggressive about spending the taxpayers' money," said Guinta, a Ward 3 alderman.
Tomorrow, aldermen will send the amendment to a public hearing. State law also requires it be reviewed by the secretary of state, commissioner of the Department of Revenue Administration and Attorney General's Office.
If it is found to conflict with state law, it does not make it on the ballot.
SOME THINKING â€” Leo Pepino was co-chairman of the original 1979 Manchester petition drive to cap city spending.
What does he think of today's effort?
"I'll vote for it," Pepino said. "But I think they should have gone a little bit further into how it would be implemented."
Pepino said the 1979 petition got 8,200 signatures. That drive left it up to the city to draw up a way to make the cap work, he said.
The Finance Office presented a plan, but aldermen voted it down, said Pepino. A member of the most recent charter commission, he said he does not see any legal problems with the current petition.
Brad Cook, a member of the past two commissions, said research during the 2003 meetings showed state law requires spending caps follow specific language. He said he does not know whether the current proposal follows those rules.
Under the city charter, the mayor proposes a budget that automatically goes into effect if aldermen cannot agree on one by June 30.
"Obviously that's inconsistent with a cap," said Cook, who is Baines' campaign co-chairman. But he added state law may allow room for retroactive modification of the charter.
"That's a pure legal question," that will be answered during the many reviews the amendment will get, Cook said.