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: Doug Roberts
Occupation: retired; former owner of PortsmouthNH.com
Years lived in Portsmouth: 38
Public service experience: Co-founder and chair of PS21 (Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century); board member Families First Health & Support Center, Fair Tide Transitional Housing (chair 2015-2016), Krempels Center; community representative on Seacoast Media Group editorial board
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?
It’s more appropriate when federal or state policies directly affect Portsmouth and Portsmouth’s residents. Some other resolutions may be unnecessarily divisive locally and not have an impact on the rest of the world. I think that speaking out on moral issues at times is important, but the issues should be chosen carefully and resolutions issued sparingly. In general, I want to see clearly identified problems and solutions.
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.”
I agree with the sentiment in that Portsmouth has called itself the “City of the Open Door” and diversity continues to be a goal identified in the Master Plan. This resolution would have been more appropriate if it had been issued this summer when it became clear that longtime residents of the Seacoast community were being targeted for deportation.
- 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.
I support this resolution. Portsmouth will be affected by climate change. Federal policies that address greenhouse gas emissions, rising sea level, and increasing temperatures should be encouraged.
- 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 don’t agree with the president. Athletes taking a knee to protest the treatment of minorities are exercising their right to free expression, in my view. However, I don’t believe a Portsmouth City Council resolution was needed in this case.
Q2: Regarding the Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF), please share your thoughts on the following:
- Should there be fewer PPAF events each year?
- Should there be limits on audience sizes?
- Should PPAF events end earlier?
- Should the volume of events be reduced?
- Is consumption of alcohol during PPAF events a problem that warrants stricter enforcement?
The advisory committee has recommended fewer concerts, limits on audience size, and earlier ending times. These restrictions are modest — limiting the number of concerts to 24 versus the 25 in 2017, for example. If passed by the current City Council, the impact will need be assessed on an ongoing basis. I was at the Taj Mahal-Keb Mo concert, and it’s hard to imagine getting more people in the park (although apparently Michael Franti managed it). The volume has already been noticeably reduced without hurting attendance. Alcohol consumption is not a big problem, and the current level of enforcement seems adequate.
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?
Early on, the current council had perhaps too many executive sessions. That seems to have improved. Expanded video recording is making it easier to see city boards and committees in action. I support fuller financial disclosure as proposed in proposed charter amendments, which are not particularly invasive for a community with an annual budget of $110 million.
The city could improve transparency by posting meeting minutes on its website in a consistent and timely fashion. I’ve requested this numerous times, but some boards and committees still fail to release their minutes until a month or more after a meeting. State law says a draft needs to be posted within five days.
B) Do you think city government has been accessible enough for residents? If not, what can be done to make it more accessible?
The real problem with access is that there are a huge volume of things going on. The amount of time required to track them all and be informed can be exhausting, even for people concerned and familiar with city government. For that reason, it’s important for the city to take the initiative as often as possible and reach out to people who may be affected. Based on the first public dialogues with the City Council, that seems to be positive development. Interactive online sessions could work in well-defined circumstances. It is difficult for some people to make meetings, but a thoughtful email or letter from someone who is obviously informed also can have a big impact.
- 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?
Land in ’70s-style retail areas like Woodbury Avenue, the Route 1 Bypass, and Lafayette Road can be used for housing. These areas have open space (parking lots), and they are located on transportation corridors with grocery stores and shopping within walking distance. This sort of development is starting to happen all around the country. The West End is headed in this direction, as is the shopping center near McKinnon’s on Lafayette Road. This approach is smarter as development strategy and wiser environmentally than pushing housing to marginal locations on the outskirts of town.
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?
Employees need convenient and affordable access to the downtown, but I would like to see a viable system of shuttles and public transportation. Over the next few years, many downtown spaces will disappear — the lots next to 3S and by the Sheraton, plus 300 spaces a year at the High Hanover garage while it is being renovated. Do we want to subsidize employee parking in the remaining spaces? The key to any new system is making sure that employees have an alternative. Simply raising rates until workers are forced to park (or work) elsewhere will not be successful, nor would it be fair.
B) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a neighborhood parking program for people who live in the city? If so, how would it work?
When people start parking on your street and taking up all the spaces to avoid paying for metered parking or parking in a garage, a program is appropriate and needed. There are dozens of approaches and considerations as on-street parking is created and maintained by the whole city. A program will need to be tested and tailored to each neighborhood while keeping in mind that streets are public spaces.
Q6: Do you think the city should cut spending in order to lower taxes? If so, where specifically would you make cuts?
The goal of every budget should be to come in at or below the rate of inflation. I am sensitive to concerns about rising taxes, as my assessment has gone up 35 percent since 2015. Budget-wise, the city will need to contend with rising pension and healthcare costs for city employees and the loss of state and federal support. To have an impact, the council will need to scrutinize contracts as they are renegotiated, the number of city employees, and accumulation of long-term debt. I’d want to hear the pros and cons of cuts to services and projects, because effective police, fire and other city services are also essential to keeping the community satisfied with city government. Long-term, the city needs to look for new sources of revenue and make sure development is paying its fair share. We are poised to become a 21st-century community that governs itself with best operational practices and invests in the technology to support them. Data — and the capacity to analyze it — is more important than ever for efficient government. New sources of revenue can help fund these investments.
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?
For $10 million, no.
B) Should the city proceed with efforts to take the land by eminent domain?
The city has suffered repeated reversals in court and the power of eminent domain should be used rarely, but in this case using eminent domain is justified. Mr. Boyle is trying to extract an excessive amount from taxpayers. If he wants to have a fair and realistic negotiation, the city should talk.
Q8: What is your stance on the regulation of short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb?
Short-term rentals are feasible if the ordinance is crafted to prevent speculation and ill effects on the rental market.
Q9: What is your stance on allowing Keno gambling in the city?
I’m against it.
Q10: Looking 10 to 20 years into the future…
A) What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Portsmouth?
The biggest challenge will be maintaining economic and social diversity, maintaining services, and beginning to address the effects of climate change while managing the tax burden on homeowners.
B) What do you see as the city’s biggest opportunities?
The McIntyre redevelopment, the creation of new town hubs outside the city center with mixed development like the West End, and making better use of what we have, from Prescott Park to the Vaughan Mall to our city streets, are the biggest opportunities.
C) How can the city start preparing for these challenges and opportunities now?
The city can start by seeking those new hard-to-find sources of revenue, being open to new ideas, and coming together as a community to address the challenges ahead.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
It’s a always a mystery until the last moment.
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.)