NASHUA - Utilizing a new provision to state law that allows board members to vote via telephone, the board of aldermen approved a $37.6 million bond to design and construct the long-debated Broad Street Parkway on Tuesday night.
To the surprise of many board members, Ward 2 Alderman Richard LaRose, who is ill and recuperating at Greenbriar Terrace in Nashua, was allowed to take part in Tuesday's meeting over a speakerphone.
Aldermen were scheduled to take action on the project, the proposal for which dates back decades. Now approved, it will result in a cross-city road and new bridge over the Nashua River.
Supporters believe the project will help provide better access to the downtown area and revitalize areas of the city along the project route. Opponents argue that the cost is too high and there are too few benefits.
LaRose was expected to support the project, but it wasn't known leading up to Tuesday night's meeting whether he would be well enough to attend. His vote was critical to getting the 10 votes needed to pass the 20-year bond.
LaRose ended up voting for the project, his voice sounding slightly weak as it echoed in the aldermanic chambers. Prior to voting, he said that while times are tough, the city would be in a position to market the area when the economy rebounds.
"By doing nothing we are not helping anyone," he said, over the phone.
HOW THEY VOTED
Also voting in favor of the project were President Steve Bolton and Aldermen Brian McCarthy, Lori Wilshire, Ben Clemons, Michal Tamposi, Jeff Cox, Michael Tabacsko, Fred Teeboom and Marc Plamondon.
Clemons said he had received phone calls and spoken to an equal number of supporters and opponents of the project. To him, the city seemed split on the issue.
"The decision for me then comes to 'are we going to build this parkway effectively and can we do it,'" he said. "I believe that we can."
Clemons also said if the project is not built, the city would be on the hook for the $14 million in federal money it accepted for the project. That money has largely been spent to acquire 29 properties in the right-of-way.
Voting against were Aldermen David Deane, David McLaughlin, Paul Chasse, Mark Cookson and Dick Flynn.
Plamondon said one of the most important aspects of the project is it would provide a second bridge crossing the Nashua River.
McLaughlin, who represents Ward 8, said simply getting a road paved in his ward is a challenge. Some of the roads in his ward haven't been touched since they were built, he said.
"What we're thinking of doing is diverting the attention of the Division of Public Works to building a road that isn't there," he said.
The change to state law, which took effect July 1, states that members can take part "by electronic or other means of communication for the benefit of the public and the governing body."
The law allows for the provision to be used "only when such attendance is not reasonably practical." LaRose's specific illness was not mentioned during the meeting, but he has been ill for several months.
The law requires that the reason attendance is not practical be stated in the minutes of the meeting.
This was the first time the provision has been utilized by the board, and several members questioned the timing.
"You can reasonably argue, if not fairly debate, that the timing of this implementation of this precedent-setting move is not without question," said McLaughlin.
McLaughlin asked LaRose directly how he came to know about the change to state law.
"Last Thursday, the mayor called me and said that there was a possibility I could participate in the meeting via telephone conference," LaRose said.
When LaRose revealed that it was Mayor Donnalee Lozeau who told him about the change to state law, there was a loud reaction among the audience, which was filled with opponents of the project.
Lozeau later responded, saying she was going to make no apologies for informing a member of the board of a change to state law that would allow him to take part in the meeting.
"It came up in the normal course of conversation," she said.
Lozeau has been a supporter of the project at its current price tag, and spoke in favor of it again during the meeting. She said the project would "transform the heart of our community like no other."
Lozeau said part of the money from the project would be used to clean up the Mohawk Tannery site, which is also a benefit to the city. She said there is also a possibility of federal funding to help offset the cost of the project.
Bolton informed the board at the beginning of the meeting that LaRose would be taking part in the meeting via telephone. Several members said they had no idea this was being planned.
"It should have been shared with the rest of us," Deane said.
Clemons criticized his colleagues, saying that if the project weren't on the other agenda, LaRose's participation wouldn't be an issue. Deane said the opposite could also be true.
"If there wasn't certain things on the agenda, as was stated earlier, perhaps the phone call would never have been made," he said.
Cookson asked how the board could be sure it was LaRose on the other end of the line. Bolton explained that a call was placed to LaRose's room before the meeting and that he recognized LaRose's voice.
Asked after the meeting about the severity of LaRose's illness, Bolton said only that it is "sufficiently serious," leaving any further comment to LaRose to disclose any details about his health.
Several opponents of the project spoke during public comment. Many had spoken out in the past and tried again at a last-minute effort to try and convince aldermen to kill the project.
Mike Chrissis said the city already had $195 million in bonded debt and this project would only add to that. He accused board members of making a decision based solely on concerns of "special interests."
"Why are those special interests more important than the general taxpayer?" he asked the aldermen.
Other speakers repeated their calls for Ward 3 Alderman Tamposi to recuse himself from voting, citing a conflict of interest.
Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, has spoken in favor of the project, arguing it is key to developing the mill yard area. Williams was at the meeting, but did not speak.
The issue of the final design of the project is still in question. The board was presented with two building options as part of a $30,000 study last year. The study was done to find ways to bring the cost down.
Teeboom said the impact on the average homeowners property tax bill would only be $65 to $80 a year, depending on which option aldermen choose.
Also at the meeting, aldermen voted down a $4.5 million bond to repair and renovate city buildings. The vote was 9-6.