Portsmouth Dems have candidates’ forum all to themselves

Other candidates — four Republicans and an independent — do not attend

By Jim McGaw
Posted 10/28/22

PORTSMOUTH — What was intended to be a Town Council candidates’ forum Thursday night turned out to be more of a campaign rally for the Democrats.

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Portsmouth Dems have candidates’ forum all to themselves

Other candidates — four Republicans and an independent — do not attend


PORTSMOUTH — What was intended to be a Town Council candidates’ forum Thursday night turned out to be more of a campaign rally for the Democrats.

The seven Democratic council candidates had the CFP Arts, Wellness, and Community Center stage all to themselves as the four Republican hopefuls and one independent candidate did not attend the event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Newport County.

Portsmouth Town Council Candidate Forum from Conley Zani on Vimeo.

Not surprisingly, there was little debate or diversity of opinions expressed at the forum, with most of the Democrats agreeing with each other on issues such as affordable housing, short-term rentals, trash disposal and taxes.

At one point, incumbent Democrat J. Mark Ryan prefaced his response to one of the questions by saying, “I have to agree with what everyone else is saying. That’s the theme of the evening, I guess.”

In a letter to The Portsmouth Times that was published before the forum, Jill Kassis, former League president, and Christine Keyser, its current convener who acted as moderator Thursday, said the Republican candidates for Town Council and Senate District 11 “have chosen not to accept the League’s invitation to participate in candidate forums. All were given a choice of dates and ample notice of the final date, the time, and the place.”

Incumbent Republican Keith Hamilton insisted there was no collective decision by the GOP to skip the forum. He claimed the Republican candidates were given only one date, and none of them could make it due to previous commitments. Hamilton said he was away on business, and Sharlene Patton had a Rotary event. 

In an e-mail sent to The Portsmouth Times on Friday, another GOP candidate, David Reise, said candidates were given a choice of three days from which to choose. “I do a lot of events in the evening. The next day before I put my scheduled events together, they selected the day of the forum. It was to be held on a day I was not available. This and only this is the reason I did not attend,” Reise stated.

According to the League, several options for forum dates were sent out on Oct. 9 and again on Oct. 11, and some Republicans did not immediately respond until Oct. 16 and 18. The majority of the responses were in favor of holding the forum on Oct. 27, according to the League, which pointed out it is a nonpartisan organization.

Neither Keyser or other League members publicly addressed the controversy at the forum. The GOP’s absence was not ignored completely, however.

“I wish this was actually a fruitful conversation,” Juan Carlos Payero, vice chairman of the School Committee who’s running for council, said during his closing remarks. “You just heard seven like-minded people tell you why we need to work together in order to keep our town the best possible place to live, work, and raise a family. Let it be evident that what you don’t see tonight shows what they mean to you.”

Question time

At Thursday’s forum, candidates were given a chance for opening and closing statements, and had 90 seconds each to answer four main questions. Then there were four “lightening round” questions in which the responses were limited to 60 seconds, followed by a few queries from the audience.

Since only Democrats spoke and were generally in accordance with one another on each topic, only a small sampling of the questions and responses will be reported here.

The first question had to do with the Town Charter, which allows the council to fill vacant seats on various town boards without any required procedure. Should new rules be implemented?

Council members agreed that whatever is decided would have to go before voters for any change to the charter. Incumbent Leonard Katzman said some people believe the next-highest vote-getter should be considered first for any vacancy, “but a blanket rule like that may not make sense.” It’s up to voters to put their trust in elected council members to appoint the best people to serve, he said, adding the positions could be advertised to draw more applicants.

The ongoing uptick of short-term rentals and Airbnbs locally, especially since the pandemic, was also tackled. 

Incumbent Kevin Aguiar, president of the council, said the current council has already started a process for regulating such rentals. “They have to be registered, residences are inspected by building official to verify the number of bedrooms and making sure the landlord or someone responsible for that property is available,” he said. One of the problems the town was having, he said, was absentee landlords, but the registration rules “cut down on a lot of complaints.”

Incumbent Daniela Abbott said short-term rentals and other investment properties have made Portsmouth a less affordable place to live, and they aren’t invested in the schools or community improvements. “Yes, they pay taxes, but what else do they add to the community?” Abbott said, adding that more needs to be done to curb the growth of such properties in town.

Charles Levesque, a former council member who’s also served in the General Assembly as both a senator and representative, said some property owners made need investment properties for additional income due to the pandemic. Portsmouth, he said, “is not an inexpensive place to live in.” It’s important for the council to recognize the different needs of the community, he said.

Climate change

Candidates were asked what the council can do to make sure the town benefits from the Act on Climate legislation to protect Portsmouth’s shorelines and other vulnerable areas. Political newcomer Timothy Grissett said he grew up in the south and has been through many hurricanes.

“Climate change is real,” said Grissett, adding that the council needs to work with its partners in the General Assembly and at the state level, form a game plan, and execute it. “We need to minimize the effects of climate change by using renewable energy sources that are available to us.”

“The most important thing is to elect people who believe that climate change is real,” added Katzman. “There is a person running for office right now — none here — who literally tried to get the phrase ‘sea level rise’ struck from the Comprehensive Community Plan.”

On actions the council can take to reduce dramatic increases in cost-of-living expenses, incumbent J. Mark Ryan said the current council has already initiated a community choice aggregation plan wherein the town can partner with other communities to bargain for the lowest electricity prices. We also need to stop relying so much on fossil fuel, he said, noting that the cost of energy has gone up in every town except Block Island, which uses wind power. 

Levesque agreed. “This used to be the affordable housing area — Common Fence Point, he said. “We still have to stop relying on foreign sources of fuel and energy. We need to invest in solar, we need to invest in wind.” 

Abbott said cheaper methods of trash disposal, the curbing of investment properties, community aggregation, solar panels on municipal buildings, and making it easier for residents to walk, ride a bike or take a bus, are all ways to cut down on living expenses.

Aguiar and Payero said controlling budget increases is the most effective thing the council can do. “That’s when they feel it in their wallets, when they need to pay their taxes,” Aguiar said. 

During the lightning round, council candidates expanded their views on trash collection: Should waste disposal and the transfer station be put back in the budget?

Most council members agreed that trash disposal should go back in the tax base since it’s an essential service, but added it’s a complicated process that could take years. “The longterm solution is to go curbside,” said Payero, adding that the majority of residents “do that with their pocketbooks already.”

Candidates were asked whether they anticipated any needed tax increase to maintain the town’s services and programs in the coming year. Aguiar said it’s a tough question, because the town has to honor contractural obligations when it comes to salaries, which rise annually. “If we try to have no increase, we have to give up on things that are currently contributing to our quality of life,” he said.

Grissett agreed, saying it’s important to maintain essential services such as police, firefighters, and the Department of Public Works. “Some of those workers have collectively bargaining agreements that require we pay them more each year,” he said.

Ryan said “prices are going to go up (because) inflation is actually a thing,” but added the current council has approved tax increases that have “consistently been below the rate of inflation.”


A senior citizen from the audience, noting that Newport and Middletown both have lower tax rates than Portsmouth, asked about regionalizing the public schools on Aquidneck Island. Newport and Middletown have supported regionalization, but not Portsmouth, which could see some tax relief from the plan, she said.

Abbott responded that Portsmouth’s tax rate may be higher, but that doesn’t mean much without considering its tax base. Newport and Middletown have many hotels and other commercial businesses that Portsmouth lacks, which is why “the burden is on our residents.” Other candidates agreed, adding that Newport and Middletown also receive significant rebates from the state with respect to hotels, meals and liquor.

Katzman added that the town explored the costs and benefits of regionalization more than 10 years ago, and according to a Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report, Portsmouth would end up paying more to join the other island schools. 

“That’s one of the reasons Portsmouth walked away from that,” he said.

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Jim McGaw

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.