The Portsmouth council has pioneered a “public dialogue” session at some of their council meetings in lieu of public comment. Nancy Pearson discusses why it is an attractive option, why many residents initially opposed it, and why it’s unconcerning that the public dialogue remains untelevised. Plus, on the podcast you will hear about one former council member’s crusade against closed-door meetings.
Q: At the February 4 council meeting, I heard Mayor Jack Blalock say that Portsmouth council members only get paid for 20 of the 22 meetings every year. Are you being forced to work without pay during those other two?
A: It’s a tricky thing in New Hampshire. Not all of our municipal duties are paid assignments. We all have day jobs that actually pay the bills and we are given a stipend for each of our council meetings with the exception of the last four meetings of the year. We are capped at $1,500 a year. One of our council members, Josh Denton, was bringing to the attention of the council that we might look at lifting the cap so we can be compensated for each and every council meeting.
Q: How do you feel about this?
A: I think he brings up a good point. If you can compensate the volunteers [council members] for each and every meeting, that might go a little bit more toward leveling the playing field. For example, one of the council members said he uses the stipend to buy attire to wear to council meetings, as he is a contractor and doesn’t necessarily have a closet full of suits and ties. I understand his point. I think it’s fair.
Q: At the Portsmouth city council’s retreat in 2017, you graded your council a “C” on the effectiveness of public comment. Look, normally I only invite on guests who have a “B” average or higher, so you’d better be killing it in biology and calculus for this interview to continue. What should your council have been doing better?
A: Up until that point, we had an antiquated system for public engagement. We came up with [an alternative to] every single meeting having a 45-minute public comment session. It doesn’t allow the opportunity for us to answer questions or engage in conversation or alleviate concerns. One of the things we’ve done now going on two years is public dialogue. We do these every other meeting. It happens before the city council meeting. If there’s a large crowd, we break up into two groups, the city council does. But we sit in an equal circle. The public has an opportunity to ask us questions and we can answer them either ourselves or the city staff is all there.
A: I was also finding that during public comment, people were saying things, making things up. Things are being put into public record that are not based in reality. That bothers me a little bit. I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by where we couldn’t correct some things or provide the right information.
Q: You sound an optimistic tone now, but originally the public commenters were hostile to the idea of putting public dialogue where public comment normally is. Do you not televise the public dialogue?
A: That is correct. If we break up into two sessions, that would be very challenging to televise. The community often has a reaction to change like that. They don’t understand it. Portsmouth has a long history of resistance to change. We’re called “Granite Staters” for a reason–we’re very rock solid in our beliefs.
Q: It strikes me that one of the benefits you listed of public dialogue was correcting misinformation that circulates in public. By not televising public dialogue, are you not missing the opportunity to correct it and broadcast it to the whole city?
A: We do keep minutes and we do an oral debrief of public dialogue at the city council meeting directly following.
Q: If you have all of the councilors in a room–or five out of the nine, which is a quorum–are you running into any ethical or perhaps legal trouble by not televising what is perhaps a meeting of the council?
A: No because televising a council meeting is not a mandatory exercise. As long as we are taking meeting minutes, which happens at each table by our city clerk, that suffices every legal obligation we have.
Q: But you would concede that while you are doing what’s required, you could also be doing more?
A: Well, one of the things that we discovered and one of the reasons we moved toward public dialogue is because while there are many people who enjoy coming to the podium, speaking their mind, and having that televised, there are an equal amount of people that are reluctant to come and speak to council because it is televised. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the public dialogue is attractive to those people who are intimidated to come to the podium to speak in public.
Follow Councilor Nancy Pearson on Twitter: @Nancy_Pearson20