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Portsmouth Council OKs first set of revisions to Town Charter

Other items tabled until July 20 meeting

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/1/20

PORTSMOUTH — Voters this November will be asked to increase the level of experience necessary to be a fire chief in Portsmouth, to approve a faster public distribution of a provisional …

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Portsmouth Council OKs first set of revisions to Town Charter

Other items tabled until July 20 meeting

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Voters this November will be asked to increase the level of experience necessary to be a fire chief in Portsmouth, to approve a faster public distribution of a provisional budget, and to clarify the chain of command on the Town Council.

Those are among the proposed revisions to the Portsmouth Town Charter that the Town Council on June 22 agreed to place on the November ballot. Other items were tabled until the July 20 council meeting.

Here’s a rundown of some of the revisions to the charter that were recommended by the Charter Review Committee, and how the council voted on them June 22.

Approved

• Council chain of command (Section 204) — Clarifies the chain of command on the Town Council by making its vice president the presiding officer in the event the president is absent.

• Committee rules (Section 207) — Ensures all members appointed to standing and temporary committees have followed appropriate administrative procedures, and that the town update its emergency plan spelling out the line of succession and authority.

• Budget (Section 208) — Ensures timely access to the provisional budget by requiring it be published on the town’s website and in a newspaper immediately following its adoption. Another suggested revision, that printed copies of the budget be prepared for public distribution at least 10 business days before public hearings, was deferred until July 20.

• Fire chief qualifications (Section 602) — Requires the town’s fire chief to be a firefighter with at least 10 years of experience in firefighting and fire prevention. (The current charter calls for five years of experience only.) Fire Chief Paul Ford suggested the change, according to Mark Katzman, secretary of the charter review panel.

• School employees (Section 710) — Brings the School Committee in line with state law by removing the board’s power to approve the appointment of school employees. That’s up to the superintendent, said School Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland, noting the school board’s attorney pushed for the charter change. Council member Andrew Kelly voted against the language change.

Rejected

Filling town vacancies (Section 209) — Would more accurately reflect the electorate’s preference in filling Town Council vacancies, according to the charter panel, by having the council appoint the next-highest vote-getter from the most recent past election to fill a vacancy. Under the current rules, the remaining members of the council select a qualified elector to fill a vacancy until the next biennial election. 

The council voted 6-1 to reject the proposed revision, with the sole Republican on the panel, Keith Hamilton, in favor of the change. 

Council member Leonard Katzman argued if someone lost a council seat by one vote, as opposed to 500 votes, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is the candidate voters want. He pointed to a recent recall election in Tiverton, where two council members were voted off the panel.

Mr. Hamilton, however, said the change would take politics out of the equation, and it should be approved for both the council and the School Committee. Voters should decide on this matter, he said, not the council.

“People who ran for office should have first preference,” he said. “The council has appointed persons who didn’t even run for the office.”

Tabled until July 20

• Ballot listings (Section 201) — Would remove “the inherent bias of the current system against Independents and the additional biases created” through the listing of candidates by alphabetical order, according to the charter panel. Currently, Independent candidates appear at the bottom of local ballots, according to Jacqueline Schulz, the town’s registrar of voters. In its 7-0 vote to table, the council also requested a suggested wording for this section from the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office.

  Qualifications for Town Council (Section 202) — 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.) Before the council voted to table, Mr. Katzman said he was opposed to the revision. “If someone is a member of both the water board and the School Committee, that’s up to the voters to decide,” he said. Mr. Hamilton, however, disagreed. “I believe there are inherent conflicts with serving on the water board,” he said, noting that both the District and the council determine what taxes residents pay for town services. 

• Parks and recreation structure (Section 605) — Would change the title of the person leading the town’s Parks and Recreation Department from the current “director” to “manager.”

• Nonpartisan elections (Section 701) — Would create nonpartisan elections for School Committee, with seven members to be elected at large by voters. The charter panel did not recommend nonpartisan elections for Town Council.

• Public records (Section 902) — Strikes current language which allows the Town Council to keep records private if their disclosure “would tend to defeat the lawful purpose which they are intended to accomplish.” Mr. Hamilton suggested continuing the discussion, saying the proposed language was awkward and needed to be “wordsmithed.”

• Conflicts of interest (Section 903) — Changes the language to reflect the fact that conflicts of interest or not restricted to financial benefit only. The proposed revision also spells out the process of notifying the town when a town official believes he or she has a conflict. Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin said the language in the proposed revision conflicted with the state’s code of ethics and needed to be revised.

• Collective bargaining (Section 913) — Avoids an additional layer of bureaucracy by striking “including School Department employee unions” from collective bargaining language. 

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