Interview #129: Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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.

Q: Okay.

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.

Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson

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


Month in Review: August 2016

During this Labor Day weekend, it’s a good time to remember all of the people who labor hard every week at city council meetings for hours and hours–or, sometimes, for 19 minutes. Catch up on where City Council Chronicles visited in the month of August.

P.S. If you didn’t see our appearance in last week’s Baltimore Sun, don’t worry–my intern spends 23 hours every day reading each newspaper in the country to see who mentions The Chronicles. And he finally found one!

#43: Laconia, NH 8/22/16

It took a real team effort to carry the Laconia city council meeting across the finish line.

“Time to get going with the city council,” Mayor Pro Tem Armand Bolduc quietly sighed. “So I’m opening up the meeting–”

“Move that a little closer to you,” whispered Councilor Henry Lipman, edging the microphone toward Bolduc.

“Citizen comments?” the mayor pro tem peered out from behind a sprawling potted plant unconquered by hedge trimmers. “I don’t see anybody moving back there, so–”

“That’s just so she can hear you,” Councilor Brenda Baer interrupted as she planted someone’s pocket recorder beside Bolduc’s notes.

Laconia city council (above) with mayor Marvin the Ficus

Okay, we cool? Can everyone turn up their hearing aid and listen to the busy, busy agenda?

“Interviews…we don’t have any. Communications…we don’t have any,” the mayor pro tem muttered as he slowly moved his finger down the checklist. The seconds ticked by. The fan whirred overhead. Finally, something to talk about:

“With no further ado, I’ll open the public hearing at 7:02,” Bolduc craned his head toward the clock.

“This is on the two solar powered benches?” asked the city manager.

“That’s right,” the mayor pro tem responded. “Free to the city, which we don’t get too often.” He stared at the audience. The audience stared at him. “Anybody have anything to say about it? If not, I’ll close the public hearing at, what…7:03?”

I’m sensing a pattern here. Luckily, one of the councilors had some business.

“I’d like to schedule a meeting to look at the lighting project that we’ve talked about,” said Councilor Lipman. “Replacing the…uh–”

“Street lights?” Bolduc bailed him out.

“Street lights,” Lipman acknowledged, “with…what’s the technical name?”

“LEDs,” tag-teamed Councilor Baer.

“LEDs, thank you.” Whew, this is like defusing a bomb.

The ESP is strong in this group.

Suddenly, the director of recreation and facilities tossed a wrench into the gears.

“With high pedestrian traffic and a focus on the aesthetic value of the area, the advisory board is recommending stamped, colored, concrete crosswalks” on Lakeside Avenue.

Once again, the council absorbed this news through their collective digestive system.

“The colored concrete crosswalks, we’re gonna spend $60,000 to color what’s already there?” Councilor Baer asked.

“It’s like a brick, but not painted onto the asphalt,” the mayor pro tem attempted to explain.

“It’s a slab,” further clarified Councilor Robert Hamel.

Slabby painted concrete. Got it.

Would you trust this man with your concrete slabs? I would.

“What kind of timeline do you have? When do you need these?” Councilor Ava Doyle wondered.

“They’re anxious to have information on what we’re gonna do–” the director started, before Councilor Hamel slammed his fist on the table.

“It doesn’t matter! It’s not etched in stone that we have to do it.” (Uh, I think it’s actually painted in concrete.) “WE decide whether we do it or not.”

The council agreed unanimously to get some prices. Also, to take those free solar-powered benches from earlier. As the mayor pro tem adjourned, he noticed the pocket recorder in front of him.

“How do you control this thing?!” he exclaimed, pushing it off to Councilor Baer.

Final thoughts: This was a toughie, but I give 10 out of 10 stars to that plant for being such a dedicated public servant.