BUILDING GOOD GOVERNMENT

Quick take

  • Respecting expertise of city professionals
  • Council is a policy-making body
  • Basing decisions on existing policy framework
  • Ethics, transparency, trust, and accountability are essential

Public safety

Portsmouth is fortunate because it does not have a high rate of violent crime.  However, we are a community that wants a police department that is attentive to the differing needs of all of Portsmouth’s wards and respects individual rights..  We want a department that reflects the diversity of the community and appreciates its unique character as a working-class town and as a tourist destination.   The Portsmouth Police Commission is the city body that acts as the board of directors for the police department and as the representatives of its shareholders, Portsmouth’s citizens.  It is a powerful citizens’ oversight board for the police department. It sets department policy; it makes and administers department rules; it is the final authority for complaints by employees and for citizens’ complaints against police personnel and it helps develop and approve the department’s budget.  We need to educate the public about the responsibilities of the Police Commission and engage them its important business. The commission includes three members, each of whom has a four-year term.

"I’ve been trying to educate myself in recent years about how our city is run and the people who run it. The professional skills of many of the city’s staff and department heads, the work of members on various boards and commissions, and the performance of some of our elected officials have routinely impressed me. However, alarm bells are ringing about the way some of our elected officials are treating city staff and resident-volunteers. I for one would like to see that change.

Portsmouth’s form of government is clearly laid out in its charter. The city manager is a chief executive who runs the city staff and operations. The job of the elected at-large nine-member council is to make policy and provide oversight of city business on behalf of all residents, including the people who did not vote for them. While the reality of running a city like ours is complex, the model is as simple as that.

The council is intended to be fundamentally a policy-making body. The performance of any particular council can largely be judged by its creation of new future-oriented policy and its adherence to -- as closely as possible -- and furtherance of existing policy. Even though councils are only two-year terms, they have to keep their eye on the future and think beyond themselves.

It’s been interesting to view every council action as happening within the framework of policies previous councils helped craft, often with considerable input from residents during listening projects. We have substantial master plans as a result. It seems to me that one measure of good government is to view every council vote against the background of relevant policies. Does the decision cohere with existing policies and plans? If not, are there clear enough reasons to warrant divergence?

I don’t think the council chamber dais was ever meant to be the place to, for example, trim a few dollars off a budget line item for stationery supplies, or to override a minor land-use board decision. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s a good idea for a council to govern by personal agenda and opinion, the mayor’s or that of individual councilors. Saddened by the recent politics of grievance, I’ve come to believe that residents have every right to expect our council to base its collective decisions on a combination of professional city staff expertise, sound information, facts, evidence, and thoughtful discussion and compromise. That process -- ethical, honorable, visible and understandable by all -- is where the real heart of city politics beats.”

Participating in civic life

Quick take

  • Busy lives requires easy access to information
  • Own or rent, there are good reasons to vote
  • Leverage local talent through “task force” model
  • Developing good will through the community
  • Speaking up, taking part

It takes a great deal of time to go back to the video of last week’s 5-hour council meeting and locate the exact point where the councilors discussed a topic that interests you, and how they voted. You could wait for a few weeks, by which time the overworked city clerk’s office has created the short “action sheet” that summarizes council actions and details the votes. It doesn’t have to be that way. Municipalities elsewhere have created effective “citizen dashboards,” where residents can quickly find information about meetings, other government business, and evaluate scorecards to see how their government is performing in key areas. Participatory budgeting is a powerful way to enable citizens to play an active role in how the city spends public funds.

It is also straightforward to enable residents to “pull” information on topics that interest them via keyword alerts delivered to their email or devices. The city can also build on our current outreach and newsletters and “push” significant amounts of information to people who have requested and signed up for it. There are many examples of other municipalities that can provide references and templates for us.

The single most significant action a citizen can take is to vote in municipal elections. Regardless of whether a citizen owns their home or rents it, individuals pay the property taxes that fund our schools, emergency and other services, and our administration. It falls upon a city that collectively believes in the power of democracy to encourage voting as much as possible. It is perfectly appropriate for our city to actively promote voting as essential for full participation in the community. A task force dedicated to investigating that topic will find many ways to achieve this.

One key issue involves the “digital divide.” Not all citizens have access to the technology that our government increasingly uses. It is vital that these citizens be identified and provided with alternative means to access important information. There are plenty of ways to do this, including for example the enrollment of “digital buddies” for the elderly.

Our city also needs to take a hard look at just how much it encourages public dialog. Public comment sessions can be enormously frustrating for citizens who would prefer real dialog instead of being limited to 3-minute contributions where no response is provided. Methodologies exist for providing more satisfaction for citizens who have something to say and prefer more discussion than monologue.