Editor’s note: PortsmouthNH.com sent a questionnaire to all 18 candidates running for Portsmouth City Council in the Nov. 7 election. Some of the questions were suggested by readers, while others were generated by the PortsmouthNH team. For information on polling hours, voting locations, voter registration, and more, contact the city clerk’s office.
Name: Brian Kelly
Occupation: Director of Marketing and Development at Seacoast Repertory Theatre.
Years lived in Portsmouth: 5
Public service experience: Co-founder of Keep Portsmouth Loud — a grassroots activist group aimed at preserving arts and culture in Portsmouth; Portsmouth NH Events — a free community resource to help efficiently publicize and learn about events in our city; and the (un)Official City of Portsmouth.
Coordinated relief efforts after State Street Fire. I volunteered for Portsmouth Pride, and have helped fundraise for the Portsmouth Halloween Parade, Safe Harbor Recovery Center, and professionally at Seacoast Rep. Through the Rep, I helped facilitate a “Stories of Addiction” fundraiser that helped raise awareness of the opioid crisis and raise almost $1,000 for Amber’s Place.
Q1: This year, the City Council has taken up several resolutions in response to comments or actions by President Trump.
A) Do you think it’s appropriate for the City Council to vote on resolutions concerning national/international issues?
Only in the sense where there is local application or consequences for the city. I believe we are specific in our focus and mission. I think these gestures are harmless as long as we have concrete follow-through. They can be an excellent start.
B) Explain your position on the following resolutions:
- In April, in response to President Trump’s comments and executive orders regarding immigration, the council passed a “welcoming and diversity resolution.”
Diversity is important to me. I’m the son of an immigrant myself, and my grandfather immigrated here illegally twice before getting his green card. A resolution is a good gesture, but I’d love to see us take concrete steps to protect immigrants and keep our local police focused on issues that reflect the values of Portsmouth. I also think they’re useful for starting conversations. They say to the community — we’re here, come out and talk and we’ll try to help.
- In June, after President Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, Mayor Jack Blalock (with council approval) signed a letter supporting the goals of the accord.
The goals of the climate accord don’t conflict with the values we’ve laid out as a city. We should be conservation-minded. We’re on the coast of a rising sea. We do have some catching up to do. I’m not an environmental expert by any means, but would happily support initiatives brought before us.
- In October, the council passed a resolution denouncing President Trump’s recent comments criticizing professional athletes who choose to take a knee during the national anthem.
I think there’s plenty we can do locally to ensure that platforms aren’t used to denigrate the rights of private citizens. I’ve had my own employer targeted, along with the livelihoods of all 150 people I work with, for having the temerity to speak up on local political issues. I think if we can denounce the president, surely we can denounce the forces in our community that exhibit the same behavior.
Q2: Regarding the Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF), please share your thoughts on the following:
- Should there be fewer PPAF events each year?
No, I absolutely do not support further cuts to scheduling.
- Should there be limits on audience sizes?
No mechanism exists to enforce audience size in an unticketed event in a park that is free and open to the public, but hypothetically speaking, if that mechanism existed, the limit should be based on PPAF’s and our emergency responders’ ability to ensure a reasonable amount of crowd safety.
- Should PPAF events end earlier?
Current curfews are sufficient and they should not be reduced in further seasons.
- Should the volume of events be reduced?
They have been reduced, and further steps are being taken to ensure that the sound is more focused.
- Is consumption of alcohol during PPAF events a problem that warrants stricter enforcement?
You can take our law enforcement officials’ word for it — absolutely and unequivocally not.
Q3: Regarding government transparency and accessibility:
A) Do you think the council has been transparent enough over the last two years? If not, what can be done to improve transparency?
The goal of transparency is truth-telling. I think we meet standards for transparency but I wouldn’t mind holding ourselves to a higher standard. It could definitely lead us to better outcomes. Transparency is always a good thing when everyone involved is acting in good faith. I do support voting “yes” on ballot questions 1 and 2. When I was arrested with Occupy, one of my major issues was money in politics.
We need to remember that transparency disinfects but also gives opportunity to another sort of abuse — misinformation. We’ve seen facts twisted and turned by members of our community acting in bad faith to ensure their own political ends. It’s one of the major reasons I started to get involved on the local level. We need good citizen watchdogs to ensure that transparency translates to truth-telling across our community.
B) Do you think city government has been accessible enough for residents? If not, what can be done to make it more accessible?
We’ve taken steps, but we’re not where we should be. Our city processes naturally disadvantage portions of our population by virtue of being meeting-based. People who work late or early and people with young families. Simultaneously, they advantage opposite populations. There is an imbalance in access. It’s part of why you see such little participation.
The changes we need to make are as much culture-based as they are process-based. We should do more to ensure that digital participation tools are taken seriously and given equal weight to in-person participation. We should set and measure a success metric for access — more unique participants. We should protect participants from harassment by instituting a code of conduct so that nobody is intimidated out of the process. We should place an emphasis on more outbound, active searches for participants rather than just meeting state law about giving notice for meetings.
We’ve made some strides, but there are better places we can go.
Q4: Housing costs continue to rise in Portsmouth. Do you think the city should add more housing supply to ease pricing pressure? If so, what land could be used for this purpose?
It’s going to take a lot of different approaches to bring housing costs down because we’re suffering from both gentrification and chronic underbuilding of housing. To that end: all undeveloped and developed land could and should be used for this purpose.
Where we have greenfields development, which is a very low number of parcels, we should make sure we get it right the first time by ensuring the most possible affordable units are included through incentives.
Where we have the opportunity for infill, and where it makes sense for the character of the neighborhood, we should ensure that density either increases or remains and doesn’t shrink.
There are some ideal scenarios we could talk about — putting land in a community trust to ensure affordable housing for generations or coordinating with local communities — but in the coming two years it’s going to be about getting the right projects in the gateway corridors as planned.
Q5: Regarding residential and workforce parking:
A) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a downtown parking program for people who work in the city? If so, how would it work?
I have no data to back this up, but I suspect a generous portion of our parking revenue comes from workers. I know I pay between $400 and $800 a year just to park near work. We should look at it as a tax on workers, and in that sense they’ve seen a tax increase.
Now there is a chance for workers to avoid this tax with satellite lots. We do have a lot at Parrot Avenue that gets used by a lot of workers in town, but as affordability goes down, more and more of our workers are forced to commute. That lot fills quickly and filters out into surrounding neighborhoods, including mine, which is why we will also be talking about resident parking.
If we could greater connect free satellite lots to downtown to reduce commute times, generally step up public transport — especially to surrounding communities with greater frequency and service — increase walkability and bike-ability to make them viable options, use the McIntyre Building partially for parking relief when we get it, and complete a new garage, we might just solve the problem without having to resort to permitting.
B) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a neighborhood parking program for people who live in the city? If so, how would it work?
Like I said, if we solve the scarcity problem it might not be necessary. But, with the new garage so close to the West End, we should look to relief on the corridors and in the urban core and be ready to implement them quickly as the neighborhoods react to changes. Let’s get the process ready and implement as we have to.
We should also look to evaluate and sunset any resident or employee parking programs as we solve the scarcity problem so they don’t artificially drive up housing costs in an area.
Q6: Do you think the city should cut spending in order to lower taxes? If so, where specifically would you make cuts?
Residential tax burden is a huge concern, but we’re very likely not going to get the tax relief we want from cuts alone before we start seriously hampering three core services — school, fire, and police. At a certain point we start to affect property value, and then we’re just subsidizing our cuts out of our own pockets.
If we cut, it should be strategic and built into the Master Plan. We should task department heads with finding efficiencies, especially as we scale as a city. We should audit where appropriate.
We need to pair all this with making sure that valuations keep as much of an even tax burden between commercial and residential as possible. Commercial properties can more readily extract value from their property to adjust to tax burden. We need to make sure those values grow at the same rate.
Q7: The council is attempting to take 4.6 acres of land containing a city sewer line from Toyota of Portsmouth owner James Boyle. In March, Boyle said he was seeking about $10 million in a settlement offer, but no settlement was reached.
A) Should the council have settled with Boyle at the amount he requested?
I’m not privy to the specifics of the settlement and I don’t want to speculate. This would be the ideal route.
B) Should the city proceed with efforts to take the land by eminent domain?
I think eminent domain is a monstrous process. I think eminent domain should only be used in matters of public safety or when there is no other choice, not to create savings.
Q8: What is your stance on the regulation of short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb?
Generally, people should be allowed to do what they want with their property. Short-term rentals do help create affordability by helping property owners generate additional revenue, so I would love for it to be able to be used in that way.
What we worry about is what other communities worry about — an outside buyer purchasing an investment property and using it as a hotel. This speeds gentrification.
If the owner lives on-site, I think it should be unrestricted. That could be a start.
Q9: What is your stance on allowing Keno gambling in the city?
People should generally be able to do what they want. Ideally it would be allowed, but no business around here would decide to do it.
However, it’s important to remember that we don’t get to keep the money. We already send away millions in Meals and Rentals Tax. This looks like it would be another profit-take for the state of New Hampshire at our expense. We are almost guaranteed to pull more than our weight.
Q10: Looking 10 to 20 years into the future…
A) What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Portsmouth?
Affordability and artificial scarcity of housing. If we solve those, a lot of our other problems diminish.
B) What do you see as the city’s biggest opportunities?
Two of our largest economic contributors are tech and healthcare. Neither of those are going anywhere if we get it right. With access to a good workforce, we can insulate ourselves from the next economic downturn with those industries.
Potential development of affordable housing in the gateway district is an opportunity. If we get it right, then we’ve used some of the last of our developable space towards solving our biggest problem.
The McIntyre Building is another. It’s been a long fight, but that huge chunk of real estate can take a big bite out of parking and housing scarcity.
C) How can the city start preparing for these challenges and opportunities now?
For starters, we can elect a council that recognizes those challenges and opportunities for what they are and has the knowledge and courage to pursue them. We can either adapt for the future or we can try and fail to remain unchanged as the world changes around us.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
A soon-to-be-elected Pumpkin.
See responses from other candidates
(Candidate Brenna Cavanaugh declined to participate, citing time constraints. Candidate Rick Becksted did not reply to messages left by phone or email.)