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More charter changes OK’d for November ballot in Portsmouth

Council members will still be allowed to simultaneously serve on water board

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/21/20

PORTSMOUTH — When residents step into the voting booths on Nov. 3, they’ll have no shortage of questions regarding proposed Town Charter changes to tackle on the …

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More charter changes OK’d for November ballot in Portsmouth

Council members will still be allowed to simultaneously serve on water board

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — When residents step into the voting booths on Nov. 3, they’ll have no shortage of questions regarding proposed Town Charter changes to tackle on the ballot.

They’ll be asked about topics such as qualifications for the fire chief, the chain of command on the Town Council, timely access to budget documents and more.

But some revisions proposed by the volunteer Charter Review Committee (CRC) won’t end up on the ballot, as they were rejected by the Town Council. Those include a mechanism for filling Town Council vacancies (voted down June 22) and switching to nonpartisan elections for School Committee (rejected Monday; see related story).

Another CRC recommendation that was turned down during a special meeting Monday concerned dual office-holding restrictions, which is listed in Section 202 of the charter under Town Council qualifications. 

The panel recommended an amendment that would bar any council member from simultaneously serving on any “quasi-municipal corporation,” such as the Portsmouth Water and Fire District. (Council member Andrew Kelly currently serves as water commissioner on the District’s administrative board.) 

The recommendation was voted down 5-1, with the council’s only Republican, Keith Hamilton, voting in favor of putting the question before voters. Mr. Kelly, one of the six Democrats, recused himself from the vote.

As he did June 22 when the proposal was first discussed before being tabled to Monday, council member Len Katzman said he was opposed to amending the charter, saying it should be up to voters to decide whether they’re OK with someone serving on both boards. He also said the phrase “quasi-municipal corporation” could be confusing to voters who may not know what it means.

Mr. Hamilton, on the other hand, said there are inherent conflicts with serving on both boards since both the water board and the council set taxes for town services. He said the issue should be put to voters on Nov. 3, but he couldn’t sway other council members.

Ballot listings (Section 201)

The council unanimously supported asking voters to amend the charter to change the current alphabetical listing of candidates on ballots to an order determined by the Board of Canvassers by the drawing of lots. The council struck “regardless of party designation or affiliation” language that had been proposed by the CRC.

Budget documents (Section 208)

At its June 22 meeting, the council approved a CRC recommendation to ensure timely public access to the provisional municipal budget by requiring it be published on the town’s website and in a newspaper immediately following its adoption. 

A second part of that proposal called for printed copies to be available for public distribution at least 10 business days before public hearings, instead of the current five days. The council on Monday voted unanimously to retain the five-day guideline for flexibility’s sake.

Parks and recreation (Section 605)

A CRC proposal to ask voters to change the title of the recreation department head from the current “director” to “manager” was approved unanimously.

Mr. Katzman noted that other town departments are headed by “directors.” Council member Daniela Abbott agreed. 

“We need a director of parks and recreation and the job title should reflect that,” she said.

Public records (Section 902)

The council unanimously sent to the ballot a proposal to strike charter language which allows the Town Council to keep records private if their disclosure would threaten the lawful purpose they are intended to accomplish.

Conflicts of interest (Section 903)

The council also unanimously approved a proposal to change the language to reflect the fact that conflicts of interest are not restricted to financial benefit only. The proposed revision also spells out the process of notifying the town when an official believes he or she has a conflict.

Collective bargaining (Section 913)

The council also unanimously moved to the ballot a question asking voters to approve a language change that strikes “including School Department employee unions” from collective bargaining language, to avoid an additional layer of bureaucracy. Mr. Hamilton said the change merely puts the town in line with state law.

Future meetings

The council will hold its next regular meeting on Monday, July 27. After that it will meet on Tuesday, Aug. 11, to set the town administrator’s goals, and then again on Monday, Aug. 24. All meetings are at 7 p.m.

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