PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council has rejected a citizens’ watchdog group leader’s request to disband the Open Space Committee (OSC), which he accused of violating state open meetings laws and a subjecting one of its members to personal performance hearings for political retribution.
“We believe the Open Space Committee is beyond redemption,” Larry Fitzmorris, president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC), told the council Tuesday night.
Besides asking the council to dissolve the OSC and assume its duties, Mr. Fitzmorris also requested that the council modify all town committee bylaws to prohibit personal performance actions against their respective members.
Mr. Fitzmorris’ allegations stem from “three recent actions against” committee member Debra Cardoza, according to his statement to the council:
• “The first action was an appeal by the committee chair and secretary to the council asking for the removal of Ms. Cardoza in April 2012. This action was not approved by the OSC itself. The council representatives involved declined to take formal action.”
• “The second action was the May 22, 2013 OSC meeting in which the committee conducted an illegal personal performance hearing against Ms. Cardoza. That hearing resulted in a complaint to the attorney general that produced the ruling in Cardoza v. Portsmouth Open Space Committee of Jan. 24, 2013.”
• “The third action was the personal performance hearing conducted by the OSC on Oct. 21, 2013. In that hearing OSC voted 7-3 to ask for Ms. Cardoza’s resignation. Their decision was that Ms. Cardoza submitted a request for open space action to the council without an approving committee vote.”
Mr. Fitzmorris argued that the OSC should be dissolved in part because the Oct. 21 personal performance hearing was called to retaliate against Ms. Cardoza for her complaint to the attorney general. The attorney general, he said, ruled against the OSC in all six specifications contained in Ms. Cardoza’s complaint and stated that the committee violated her rights under the Open Meetings Act.
“I think that’s perhaps a record in this state,” Mr. Fitzmorris told the council.
He also said OSC’s bylaws do not permit the panel to conduct personal performance hearings. During the Oct. 21 hearing, he said, the OSC initially denied Ms. Cardoza the opportunity to have legal representation. “The lack of fairness in these hearings shocks the conscience,” he said, adding that Ms. Cardoza was denied the right to “make a complete defense on the issues she was charged with.”
An additional concern PCC had, he said, is that “the Open Space Committee, as a matter of policy, prohibits open comment of any sort at their meetings.”
Karen Menezes, chairwoman of the OSC, told the council that personal performance reviews are difficult enough without having to entertain questions from the audience. She also said the hearing was justified in this case.
“I’d like to tell you that this is the fourth time that she’s done this,” Ms. Menezes said, referring to Ms. Cardoza’s attempt in to be put on the Town Council agenda without prior approval from the committee. “We reviewed it, we took a vote and we have asked for her resignation,” she said, adding that Ms. Cardoza has not agreed to step down.
OSC member Richard Moore pleaded with the council not to disband the committee, saying it’s done good work over the years. He accused PCC of having a political agenda, and said the attorney general’s ruling stated that the committee did not willingly or knowingly violate the Open Meetings Act. “It was a simple mistake,” Mr. Moore said.
Charles Allott, executive director of the Aquidneck Land Trust, said he’s been involved with the OSC since he was a council liaison to the committee over a decade ago. “That truly is the most professional, conscientious committee I’ve ever dealt with in this town,” said Mr. Allott. “I think both of these requests are quite frivolous.”
Several residents, however, said they were also taken aback by what they’ve witnessed at OSC meetings.
“I’ve been to two of those meetings also, and there’s something wrong,” said Kathy Melvin, who along with several others praised volunteers for their hard word in serving on town committees. “Nobody on a committee should be beaten down so badly that they’re publicly humiliated and reduced to tears.”
Said Jim Smith, another resident who’s attended OSC meetings, “I find it chilling that I’d volunteer for a committee and I’d be subject to a performance review.”
Peter Roberts told the council that it sounded like the OSC was bullying one of its members for going over its head. “I’ve seen this kind of thing happen in the work place,” said Mr. Roberts, who also equated a public body that refuses to take comments from the audience with communism.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she’s been “struggling” with the OSC ever since she became its council liaison in 2010. “There’s a heavy atmosphere of mistrust in this committee,” she said, adding that her own suggestions have always been met with resistance. Ms. Pedro, however, said she didn’t want to see the committee dissolved.
Council member Keith Hamilton said he saw no evidence of any political retribution by the OSC majority, but rather miscommunication between its members. He also pointed out that the tipping point for the Oct. 21 performance hearing against Ms. Cardoza was when she attempted — without OSC approval — to get on the Town Council agenda to ask for funds for benches at the corner of Park Avenue and Boyd’s Lane.
“Putting benches on state land shouldn’t even be in the purview of the Open Space Committee. The fact that we’re here discussing this for a half hour or 45 minutes is sad,” said Mr. Hamilton, who joined other council members in saying he didn’t want to disband the committee.
On a motion by Ms. Pedro, the council voted unanimously to direct Town Administrator John Klimm to arrange a mediation session for OSC members within 30 days and make a recommendation to the Town Council on whether any committee members should be removed, or the OSC be disbanded.
“If there’s a problem with a person, it’s this Town Council that decides whether somebody goes or stays,” said Council President James Seveney. “With circumstances like this, I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and establish a new perspective going forward.”
Ms. Cardoza did not speak at the council meeting, but on Wednesday morning said she was “very hopeful” that the mediation between Mr. Klimm and the OSC “will turn out to be fruitful.”
Open meetings law review
In a related agenda item, council member David Gleason requested that a town-sponsored “review class” be held for all town committees to get them up to speed on the Open Meetings Act and other matters.
Mr. Gleason, once chairman of the Lower Glen Farm Committee, said it’s often difficult for volunteer committee members to be as knowledgable on procedure as boards that meet on a regular basis, such as the council or the School Committee.
Mr. Gleason said the review could include voting procedures and Roberts Rules of Order; recording, correcting and posting of meeting minutes to the Town Council; establishment of bylaws for new committees; proper posting of agenda items; agenda topics possible open for discussion but not eligible to vote on; and accepting public comments at meetings.
The council approved Mr. Gleason’s request unanimously.
Council member Molly Magee then made a motion, also passed unanimously, that the Town Council meet at least once a year with all the committee leaders or their designees. “It would be beneficial for all the committees to hear what the others are doing because there is overlap,” she said.
According to Mr. Seveney, there are 17 town committees that are assigned Town Council liaisons.