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Letter: Budget hearing should be public, not virtual

Posted

To the editor:

An open letter to the Portsmouth Council:

I am writing to you on behalf of the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens to strongly encourage the council to conduct a budget hearing that is open to the people.

During the May 11 meeting, Mr. Hamilton suggested that the council conduct its budget hearing with the approach that Gov. Raimondo has used in recent coronavirus briefings. She has conducted those meetings in an auditorium and Mr. Hamilton recommended that the Portsmouth High School auditorium be used. We believe that the PHS auditorium provides more than sufficient space to maintain a six-foot separation among attendees and that this will work while preserving distancing requirements. 

Based on recent attendance at annual budget hearings, we expect no more than 15 citizens in attendance. Members of the council, School Committee, the town administrator, the superintendent, both finance directors and a sound technician should be in attendance. In total, that is 34 people in a room with a capacity of 500. In order to reduce numbers in the room, Portsmouth employees should be encouraged to attend via Zoom. Questions that cannot be answered by attending officials during the meeting can be posted on the town’s website the following day.

We believe that the plain language of the Town Charter in paragraph 208, subparagraph 3 requires a public meeting:

3. Within thirty (30) days of the approval and publication of the provisional budget, public hearings shall take place.

The PCC is also concerned about the precedent that abandoning the requirements in the Charter will set for the future. We do not believe that the governor’s declaration of an emergency for the coronavirus, and her subsequent executive orders, can supersede or set aside elements of our Home Rule Charter. That is the business of the citizens of Portsmouth. If charter provisions can be so easily swept away, the value of Home Rule will begin to evaporate and the people’s restraints on local government will be greatly weakened.

In addition to the above arguments, while we acknowledge the town has done what it can, it has become clear that the Zoom technology is problematic for citizens. By our count, only four citizens have used the system to ask questions during the six meetings conducted using the program. In that number we exclude those who were defending funding for their organization or advocating for their businesses. The sound is often distorted and the nature of the meeting with Zoom clearly discourages participation by the citizens. We believe the use of videoconferencing systems disenfranchises those without the necessary technical experience or computer systems. This approach is not adequate for a budget hearing.

The public has a clear right to attend the budget hearing. This provision in the Charter was included by the people to ensure that they have the opportunity to make their wishes known directly to their elected officials. A public meeting is within the ability of the council.

Larry Fitzmorris

Portsmouth Concerned Citizens

50 Kristen Court

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.