Portsmouth gears up for municipal court

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PORTSMOUTH — If you suspect that someone’s illegally dumping trash near your home or parking a big rig in a residential zone, there’s not much you can do except complain to local officials and hope for the best.

250px-Portsmouth_signThat will all change with the establishment of Portsmouth’s first municipal court, Town Council members say.

The council Monday night approved an ordinance to establish a municipal court that will primarily hear alleged violations of the town’s zoning ordinance. The General Assembly approved legislation this spring to allow the court, which is modeled after similar ones in neighboring towns, said Kevin Gavin, town solicitor.

The court may impose a sentence of up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 per violation, or both. It may also punish defendants for contempt, such as when they don’t appear to answer a charge. The municipal court is also authorized to assess court costs of $50 for each offense.

A municipal court judge will be appointed by the Town Council, with his or her initial appointment terminating Dec. 31, 2014; each subsequent appointment will be for a two-year period beginning Jan. 1. The judge must be an attorney with at least five years of experience in practicing law. The council will also appoint a court clerk; under the ordinance, the town clerk could also serve in this position.

“This is a long time coming in this town,” said John Blaess, council vice president, adding that a municipal court will give town departments the “muscle” the need when trying to enforce local ordinances.

Council President James Seveney agreed.

“Since I’ve been on the council there’s one thing that’s continued to capture my attention and that is the circumstances that arise between neighbors on blatant violations of the zoning ordinance, or gray areas,” said Mr. Seveney

Without a municipal court in place, he said, complaining about a town ordinance violation can be an exercise in frustration for homeowners. He offered the example of a large diesel truck idling loudly next to a neighbor’s home.

“The police go down and do what they can. (Building Inspector) George Medeiros goes down and does what he can. And what do you think happens after that? Not a hell of a lot,” said Mr. Seveney.

Now, he said, the town will have the authority to bring an alleged ordinance violator before a municipal court “and let them defend their actions.”

After the meeting, Mr. Seveney said the town will now advertise to hire a judge for the municipal court. “I assume there is a plethora of qualified judges,” said Mr. Seveney, adding that he believes the court will most likely meet once a month for a few hours during the day.

“I’m hoping that within 60 days it will be operational,” he said.

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