PORTSMOUTH — The town and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) are working toward an agreement that would ultimately put an end to talk of sewers in Portsmouth.
More than three years ago, DEM issued a notice of violation (NOV) to the town, claiming it was discharging contaminated storm water from the two neighborhoods — Island Park and Portsmouth Park — into local waters. DEM also ordered the town to install sewers to remedy the situation.
But after meeting privately with DEM officials for about 90 minutes in executive session April 1, the council voted 6-0 to direct its solicitor to work on revising the town’s Wastewater Management Plan and wastewater ordinance to “reflect a potential agreement” between the two parties that would resolve the NOV. Details of potential changes to the two documents were not revealed at the meeting.
Under the town’s Wastewater Management Plan, a municipally funded revolving loan program helps residents pay for upgrades to their septic systems to bring them in line with minimum state standards. Under the agreement with DEM, the town would continue to use onsite solutions to deal with its septic issues, rather than sewers.
The vote also stipulated that there would be public discussion and review of any changes made to the wastewater plan and ordinance before adoption.
“The town has stated that on no uncertain terms they do not want sewers and the DEM is essentially accepting that with some provisos that we hold up our end to help them make sure that we’re keeping the waters clean,” Council President James Seveney said before the vote.
Mr. Seveney cautioned that there is still much work to be done before an agreement is hammered out.
“We are at a point where we’re going to have to work out quite a number of details, but in the end we believe there’s at least a fair possibility that with some changes to our ordinance, with some changes to our wastewater management plan, we will arrive at common ground where they will drop the NOV,” he said. “There’s work to be done but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.”
Council member Keith Hamilton called the vote “an enormous step forward.”
Council member Molly Magee agreed. “The real focus is making sure we do what’s right for the homeowners and we’re working toward that solution,” she said.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she hopes the public is involved in any decisions made going forward. “I don’t think people are going to like what’s coming down the pike. There’s going to be some difficult decisions,” she said.
Private talks questioned
Before the council went into executive session April 1, two members questioned the appropriateness of conducting the meeting with DEM officials in private.
“It’s of concern to me,” council member David Gleason said. “Typically in litigation you’re meeting to discuss a strategy against somebody you’re litigating against. This is totally different. We’re meeting with the people we actually have the lawsuit with. I’m just not sure that this is the right way to do this. I’d love to see this done in a public session unless there’s something here that’s really between us.”
Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin, however, said the private talks were “perfectly proper” under the Open Meetings Act.
Ms. Pedro said she had no objection meeting in executive session if it was for the purpose of discussion litigation strategy with the town solicitor. However, Ms. Pedro said she was told at the March 24 council meeting that the April 1 gathering would have nothing to do with the NOV.
“If it has nothing to do with NOV litigation, we have no business meeting in executive session with DEM,” she said.
She read from a March 12 letter to the town from DEM Director Janet Coit, who requested a meeting in executive session with the council to discuss a potential “settlement” over the NOV. That letter was sent after Mr. Seveney and Mr. Hamilton met with DEM officials Feb. 11, she noted.
Mr. Seveney insisted there was no discussion about a settlement with DEM during the Feb. 11 meeting. “That’s not what we discussed,” he said.
(At the March 24 council meeting, Mr. Seveney and Mr. Hamilton said the Feb. 11 meeting had focused only on the language used in DEM’s letters notifying residents whether their septic plans have been accepted.)
Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens asked to make some comments, but Mr. Seveney told him, “this is a council thing.”
“Normally the council allows citizens to speak on a motion on the floor,” responded Mr. Fitzmorris. “So, you assume I have nothing to add to the discussion.”
“What I’m telling you is we’re going to vote and we don’t need any public comment at this point,” said the council president.
The council vote to go into executive session was 4-2, with Mr. Gleason and Ms. Pedro voting against.
A representative from The Portsmouth Times did not attend the April 1 meeting. This article is based a video of the open session portions of the meeting, which can be viewed at www.portsmouthrecord.com.