Portsmouth mulls written rules to tackle bad meeting behavior

Codified guidelines aimed at educating public on how meetings should be conducted

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/14/24

PORTSMOUTH — On the heels of several contentious meetings that were marred by heckling and insults lobbed between residents and Town Council members, the council Monday night took the …

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Portsmouth mulls written rules to tackle bad meeting behavior

Codified guidelines aimed at educating public on how meetings should be conducted


PORTSMOUTH — On the heels of several contentious meetings that were marred by heckling and insults lobbed between residents and Town Council members, the council Monday night took the first steps in establishing written guidelines in an attempt to bring more decorum to the proceedings.

Two attorneys on the council, Vice President Leonard Katzman and Charles Levesque, agreed to draft a six-bullet document of additional rules of conduct at public meetings that will be submitted to the council for final approval.

The proposal, which was suggested by Levesque, comes in the wake of five meetings, held in October, December and January and attended by hundreds of residents at Portsmouth High School, regarding the future of the transfer station, the East Main Road roundabout, and SouthCoast Wind’s application to run transmission cables through a section of Portsmouth.

Tempers flared on both sides at those hearings, and at times general meeting decorum flew out the window. Council President Kevin Aguiar struggled at times to keep things under control — as did Katzman, who sat in as council president on the roundabout talks after Aguiar recused himself. In the end, however, everyone who wished to speak at the microphone was afforded that opportunity.

Levesque did not attend the SouthCoast meeting, but viewed the tape. “There were comments made that you people were taking bribes, there were comments made that it was blood money. There were a few other things like that,” said Levesque, before joking that at least he wasn’t the source of residents’ wrath that night. “They don’t like you people, either.”

Aguiar shared his frustrations in running three of the meetings. “I almost broke the gavel one time,” he said, noting that while most council meetings go smoothly, the recent gatherings at PHS have been more difficult. “It’s a little dimmer, it’s a little darker, and the shouting comes from the dark corners. It’s very frustrating when you ask someone to stop talking and they refuse.”

Levesque said most of his suggestions are already followed by the council, or covered under Robert’s Rules of Order. One change he proposed was in regard to the habit of residents lining up to speak in front of the podium. He suggested residents sign up to speak beforehand, and then the council president would call on signers to speak when it’s their turn. Anyone who doesn’t follow those rules and speaks without being recognized, he said, risks being expelled from the meeting.

“That means I don’t have to stand at the rostrum and have someone breathing down my neck that wants to speak,” said Levesque. “I think it’s just a matter of courtesy that all public comment comes from the rostrum and all other public comment should be restricted — quite frankly, forbidden — and if in fact somebody is told to stop doing that and they persist, this actually indicates there is an opportunity to have that person excluded from the meeting.”

Council member Keith Hamilton said he didn’t like the idea of a signup sheet, as some residents “come and go” from meetings, or they don’t choose to speak until they’ve heard some of the discussion first. “It tends to disenfranchise people,” he said.

He added that some of Levesque’s ideas seemed redundant, as the council president already has the authority to carry out much of what was being proposed. Levesque responded that while that may be true, he was looking to “codify” the rules so they could be posted on the town’s website or even printed and laminated for public viewing.

Hamilton also cautioned against any attempt to curb political speech. “If somebody wants to stand up and say we’re taking bribes, they pretty much have the right to get up there and say we’re taking bribes. It’s patently false, but they can get up there and say it,” he said.

However, if it gets to the point where someone makes a direct, personal attack on an individual, “that’s when we should be able to say, ‘Hey — enough,’” Hamilton said.

‘Elephant in the room’

Council member David Gleason said the issue of disrespect goes both ways, however. “I think the elephant in the room is us, as councilors,” he said, before starting things off by apologizing for his “outburst” earlier in the evening. 

He was referring to discussion on a progress report from the Solid Waste/Recycling Study Committee, when Gleason grew frustrated after Levesque interrupted him several times. At one point Gleason suggested, perhaps facetiously, that they settle their differences at “Fort Butts” before telling Levesque, “Don’t be so unruly.”

Gleason then asked Levesque about his proposal’s recommendation of “expulsion” for someone who’s being unruly at a meeting.

“Does that apply to us? It probably should,” he said.

Gleason gave Aguiar “a lot of respect for his ability to read people and give them time to speak,” which he said isn’t an easy thing to do for many residents.

“I think we are our own worst enemy,” said Gleason, before opining that Katzman and Levesque owe his wife, Karen Gleason, an apology for the way they treated her at one of the transfer station meetings. “Anybody who gets beat up who goes up there (to the podium), that’s on us, and that’s wrong.”

Levesque defended himself by saying while he’s argued with residents at meetings, he’s never “demeaned or denigrated anybody.”

Residents speak out

Although council members lamented the poor behavior at the recent meetings at PHS, resident Nancy Grieb found them to be invigorating.

“I’ve been to a lot of town meetings,” she said. “I believe the meetings we have had in the Town of Portsmouth in the Portsmouth High School in the last four months have been some of the best meetings I have ever attended. You people asked for this job. It is free speech, and it may be too long sometimes, but how often does it happen? Those meetings were what you want a Town Council meeting to be.”

John Spadaro, who was “Zooming” in from Prudence Island, agreed that the rules of conduct should be codified in some way, and urged the council to also consider residents who participate in meetings remotely.

“Sometimes getting recognized as a remote attendees can be difficult,” he said.

Larry Fitzmorris, the president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens who often spars with council members over a myriad of issues, nevertheless credited the Town Council and School Committee for their generous policies in allowing citizens to speak at meetings.

Fitzmorris estimated he’s spoken at council and school board meetings in eight different communities, mainly in the East Bay. “I can tell you that in regard to people speaking to their councils or school committees, Portsmouth is the best there is. And I say that from personal experience,” he said.

Whatever rules are set regarding public meetings, Fitzmorris said it’s vital that town officials allow the public to offer testimony on a topic before the council votes on it. “That is not an ability most of the citizens of this state have with their local government. That by all means should remain where it is,” he said.

Addressing the line that often forms behind the podium, Fitzmorris said there was a good reason for that. If you raise your hand to be recognized, “there’s only a 50/50 chance you’re ever going to be called on,” he said, noting he’s been ignored a few times while sitting in the audience. 

Fitzmorris also complimented Aguiar’s handling of the contentious transfer station and SouthCoast meetings at PHS. “Those are difficult things to do. They’re never going to get perfect because it’s a room full of imperfect people. Mr. Aguiar has done a good job most of the time. I’m the one who suffers when he doesn’t,” he said.

After Levesque said council members are elected representatives who are “are entitled to the respect that you would give the Town of Portsmouth,” Fitzmorris clapped back.

“But that’s a two-way street,” he said. “When I stand here I expect respect from the members of the council as well. As a citizen of this town, I think I’m due that respect. I don’t shout at you guys, but you shout at me, and that should stop, too.”

Portsmouth Town Council, SouthCoast Wind, Portsmouth transfer station, East Main Road roundabout

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