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Mayoral candidates meet for debate

  • Dawn Johnson, far left, and Andrew Hosmer, far right, field questions during the Laconia mayoral debate at Laconia Middle School on Wednesday. Alan MacRae—Laconia Daily Sun

  • Laconia Middle School student Mikayla Keegan poses a question about Laconia’s school system at the start of the mayoral debate. Alan MacRae / Laconia Daily Sun

  • Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer responds to a question during the Laconia mayoral debate Wednesday.

  • Rep. Dawn Johnson answers questions from panelist and the audience during Wednesday night’s mayoral debate.

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 10/22/2021 5:19:21 PM

Candidates for mayor gave contrasting profiles of the city during a debate Wednesday, with Mayor Andrew Hosmer focusing on the signs of the city’s growth and forward momentum, while challenger Dawn Johnson lamented about a city bedeviled by social problems, shady dealing by local officials, and conflict among its residents.

The two offered their ideas and answered questions from panelists and the public during a debate sponsored by The Laconia Daily Sun. About 250 people attended the event in person at Laconia Middle School, while upward of 200 others watched the back and forth between the candidates love on Lakes Region Public Access. Hundreds more watched the event on Thursday, which was available at www.debate.lrpa.org

In introductory remarks, Daily Sun Publisher Adam Hirshan reminded the audience that in view of the fact that the race for mayor (like other municipal offices in the Nov. 2 election) is non-partisan, “we are not here as Republicans or Democrats. We are neighbors and we are here to listen respectfully to our candidates for mayor.”

“We have a homeless population that has grown, we have a drug problem that has grown, and our education department is failing,” Johnson said. “There’s been backdoor deals and gentlemen’s agreements without the knowledge (of) the residents. We need someone (as mayor) who is good (at) governance of our money and our interests, not someone who has self-interest and (that of) their friends.”

Hosmer said he did not share Johnson’s “doom and gloom” portrait of the city.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my city,” he told the audience. “We have so much energy, enthusiasm and optimism.” He said the challenges facing the city — homelessness, drug crime, lack of affordable housing and parking — can be resolved with dedicated leadership. But he added there have also been many positive developments over the past two years. “Things are on the upswing,” Hosmer declared, “We are truly a city on the move.”

Questions that came from panelists chosen by the candidates as well as from the public in both the in-person and online audience covered a variety of topics — homelessness, drugs, the purchase of St. Joseph property, the future of the Laconia State School property, and road and bridge construction on Court Street.

Two members of the Middle School Student Council had questions. To a question about protecting the city’s environment posed by seventh-grader Allysa Fay, Homser said city residents as well as visitors need to do their part in enhancing the city’s appearance and reducing the amount of litter.

Several questions dealt with residential development, and in particular the shortage of workforce housing.

Johnson said the city doesn’t need more luxury condos, but instead more quality housing that working-class people can afford and that the city needs to change its zoning ordinances to foster that kind of development.

Hosmer noted that the city has enacted a more flexible zoning ordinance which makes it easier for developers who want to build housing with a higher number of units in a given land area. In addition, he said the plan to convert the former Holy Trinity School into apartments would help provide more affordable housing. But he added that making the city a more attractive place to live will draw developers to build more housing suitable for moderate-income families because they know there will be demand.

Responding to a question about homelessness, Hosmer noted that early in his term he had created an ad hoc committee to look at the extent of the problem, and that he had personally visited some of the homeless encampments in the city in order to hear directly from people experiencing homelessness. He said that earlier this month he had asked that the City Council create a permanent committee that would be responsible to define the problem and come up with a solution.

Hosmer said if the Laconia State School property is redeveloped in a comprehensive fashion that would have a significant impact on the housing situation. He criticized the city’s legislative delegation for not standing up for the city’s interest when language was added to a rider to the state budget bill which gave the Gov. Chris Sununu sole authority over the sale of the property without any input from the city. The delegation, he said, was more interested in party loyalty than in doing what was best for Laconia.

“We are here to serve the people,” Hosmer said, “not partisan interests.”

Johnson, however, said that she had tried to get that provision removed from the bill, but that her effort was ultimately unsuccessful.

Johnson said the city should be more proactive in tackling the homeless problem. The city was not as helpful as it could be, she maintained. She told of one non-profit that was having difficulty getting information from the city they wanted in order to help homeless people.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she said, “but we need to come up with a solution.”

She said she would be more forceful in tackling the drug problem. She pledged to reach out to the community for ideas that will bring results.

Hosmer said police need to make sure that they have the capacity to deal with the issue. He said additional personnel might very well be necessary to enhance the Police Department’s ability to investigate drug trafficking and other drug-related activity.

During the question-and-answer phase of the debate Johnson again criticized the school department which she said “was indoctrinating students rather than educating them” in basic subjects.

Her comment was an allusion to this past summer when the School Board was confronted by some members of the public who argued the students were being taught critical race theory, and who refused to believe the school superintendent that that was not the case.

Hosmer lamented the behavior by some members of the public during those meetings.

At another point in the debate, however, Johnson spoke positively about the School District’s portrait of a graduate program which represents its vision for 21st century skill, character traits, and other areas of competence that students need to succeed in college, career and life. Teachers were doing a good job, she added.

Hosmer noted that teachers today do more than teach classes.

“They are social workers, first responders, and in many cases mandatory reporters,” he said.

He said that the city teachers are to be commended for the work they do, and they deserve the people’s support.

Johnson took aim at how the Hosmer and the council arranged to purchase part of the St. Joseph Church campus. She said it was wrong that the purchase was negotiated in secret and added that the $1.4 million which the city paid for the property would have better been used toward the repair of the downtown parking garage. She blamed Hosmer for a lack of transparency and promised if she is elected that there will be no “backroom deals.”

Hosmer defended the St. Joseph purchase, saying it was good for the city. He said it added to downtown parking at a time when the Colonial Theatre was about to open, and in addition provided a chance to increase the availability of seriously needed affordable housing. The city agreed to confidentiality surrounding the negotiations to purchase the property only because of the absolute insistence of the Diocese of Manchester which owned the property.

The only personal attack of the evening came when Johnson alleged Hosmer’s involvement in the purchase of three residential condominiums in the Colonial building was unethical, and amounted to using his official position to benefit himself.

Hosmer said there was nothing inappropriate about the purchase. He said he and his wife had purchased three of the condos through a private real estate agent, not through the city. As to Johnson’s comment regarding the parking spaces to be rented out to condo occupants, Hosmer said that arrangement had been agreed to more than two years ago between the developer and then-Mayor Ed Enger. Moreover, he said, he had recused himself from recent City Council proceedings when the parking space issue was discussed so as to remove any appearance of conflict of interest.

In response to questions from some panelists chosen by Johnson that Hosmer had done too little during his time as mayor, he reminded the audience that the position of mayor is mostly a ceremonial one and the mayor has no authority over how city departments operate.

Hosmer said Laconia is “going in the right direction,” and he pointed to the recent opening of the Colonial Theatre as an example of the city’s forward progress. He credited former Mayor Ed Engler for his vision and effort in bringing that project to fruition.

Johnson promised she would listen to her constituents and “fight for their rights.” She also stressed her commitment to a transparent government.

As of mid-day Thursday nearly 750 people had watched the debate online, which LRPA Director Grace McNamara called an unusually large audience for such a program.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.



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