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: Jason Walls
Occupation: Director of Technical Marketing at QA Cafe
Years lived in Portsmouth: 13
Public service experience: Working with/presenting to various governmental and non-governmental standards and regulatory bodies (NTIA, FCC, ITU-T, Broadband Forum).
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?
I don’t like the words “appropriate/inappropriate,” because saying one way or another implies having some opinion about the resolutions themselves. I think “resolutions” in general are a waste of time. They don’t do much other than polarize, and they don’t do anything for the city — who’s the target audience? What’s the actual purpose? The city council should be focused on managing the public trust.
That said, I think it is entirely appropriate for city councilors to make their own statements on such issues, and even join together with other councilors off-board on such statements. And, it’s not simply appropriate — it should be encouraged.
One other thing. About two years ago I made the conscious decision to avoid national politics, because it is so unhealthy and polarizing. We have real work to do at the city level, things that really do affect our day to day lives and that we have direct control over. We should be involved in politics only in proportion to the degree that we have influence or are influenced by it.
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.”
- 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.
- 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.
See above. I will say, however, that I think the resolution concerning the criticism of athlete protests was a little more appropriate than other things, since there were local incidents on the topic and those involved definitely needed the support. I still think it could be done off-board though.
Q2: Regarding the Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF), please share your thoughts on the following:
Here’s my collective thoughts on the PPAF. I think that what we really want is for everyone to be involved in the festival’s success. Rather than it being an antagonistic relationship between the festival and the specific residents that have concerns, we should find ways to mitigate those concerns that focus on the success of the festival rather than limiting it.
The Park Master Plan does this. Yes, it will be a while before it’s complete, but it was made with these ideas in mind. I think that up to now the PPAF has taken many steps to mitigate concerns, and to move the goalposts now is disingenuous, and it’s inappropriate to try to use the memory of the Prescott sisters as a weapon to limit the festival further, with the exceptions below:
- Should PPAF events end earlier?
- Should there be limits on audience sizes?
- Should there be fewer PPAF events each year?
No, I don’t think that these address the real concern. What we want is a dialogue about how the festival can be successful while working with the concerned parties. Also, limiting the time to end earlier is impractical for things like movie nights, which require darkness that doesn’t start until 8:30 on some summer nights. Noise limitations have already been addressed, and we just need to get better at the management of it. The Master Plan addresses this well.
- Should there be limits on audience sizes?
I think that this is maybe what is most appropriate for the city to be concerned about, but it’s not something that can be done by counting. Audience size is a legitimate safety and impact concern, and is also a great case for examining the question: “How can we mitigate concerns while keeping the PPAF successful?”
One idea is to work with the PPAF to have the impact fee scale with crowd size, perhaps by operating as a percentage of profits from gate donations rather than a flat fee. This would allow residents to feel as though they have a stake in the success of the park, and more accurately reflect the impact based on crowd size. It may also help pay for improvements to the park without additional tax burden to residents.
- Is consumption of alcohol during PPAF events a problem that warrants stricter enforcement?
No, absolutely not. If there were actual public intoxication that was a danger to others, harassment, violence, etc., THAT is what we try to avoid with public drinking laws. Those things aren’t happening, and it’s a waste of city resources to try to catch the .01 percent of people who might be sneaking booze. If they are caught, fine (public drinking anywhere in town is already illegal), but I don’t think committing additional resources to a non-issue is appropriate. There’s no way to get a 100-percent success rate with ANY law. It’s also an issue that “arose” after some people didn’t feel like the noise issue was being addressed, so I feel like this is “moving the goalposts” and antagonistic, when it doesn’t have to be.
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?
I think it’s not a question of transparency, but one of communication. There’s no hidden information that wouldn’t be discovered by request, but citizens shouldn’t need to use their valuable time to try to uncover what is going on in town. As someone involved in marketing, if someone doesn’t know something about what we produce, that’s not their fault, it’s our fault. The city would do well to put explicit processes in place that make an active effort to push information out to the city’s stakeholders (residents, business owners, neighbors, etc.) in a way that is direct and consumable. I think that this is the fundamental mistake behind the recent property revaluation — when the need for one was triggered, we should have all been notified it was coming down the road rather than having the first we’d heard of it be after it was already done.
B) Do you think city government has been accessible enough for residents? If not, what can be done to make it more accessible?
I’d say this is one of my two defining issues running for council. The vast majority — maybe 99 percent — of our city’s population does not have the time or wherewithal to attend every meeting, scour through pdf agendas, etc., just to have influence on city matters. I also think it’s insulting to say that those people who don’t have time don’t care or don’t have a voice. Let’s not forget that this also includes older or disabled residents who physically cannot make it to meetings.
We have so much technology at our disposal to improve this, but it’s more than just a technological problem. It’s a process problem with regards to basic practices of city government that need to be improved — when to communicate, the channels in which to do so, etc. I think we can make this much better. The new city website is a great start but we can do more.
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?
If I had two defining issues, this would be the second one. Our price problem is entirely a function of supply and demand. We need to build more, period. Particularly high-density housing like apartment buildings. We need to have open, honest, and non-antagonistic dialogue with developers and residents to get this done, asking questions like:
What are reasonable mandates for affordable housing? There are legal definitions of this, but so far no one has taken this as an option. So what would a reasonable number be? As more housing is built, the prices will come to balance.
What power can neighborhoods be given to help define themselves? If we are short on land, is it because some areas that were single-family residential could be rezoned if people in those areas are comfortable with it? Can they share locally in the tax benefit of doing so? There are mechanisms for this that we can use.
The bottom line is that Portsmouth is the size of a town but is feeling the pressure to become a city. That concept affects all aspects: arts, vibrancy, housing, business — all of it. We can either accept this and work with the change, or fight it. If we fight it, it will get worse for us.
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?
Yes! One idea we had was to revisit validated parking, not for visitors, but for workers. Businesses could get a discounted rate and pay for their workers’ parking through vouchers or passes, which would allow it to be written down as an expense rather than trying to increase compensation (which is vastly more expensive for businesses). This could be offered as an incentive for employment.
B) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a neighborhood parking program for people who live in the city? If so, how would it work?
I do, but it has the unfortunate consequence of economically being a wash. If we subsidize residential parking, the demand will increase, which, if parking rates aren’t increased, will result in a parking shortage. I think the best idea is to make it *easy* and discounted for residents to get parking passes so that the revenue is predictable, it is insulated from parking fee increases, and residents don’t have to deal with meters or easy-park.
Q6: Do you think the city should cut spending in order to lower taxes? If so, where specifically would you make cuts?
I believe in the principles of strategic governance; that is, city government should always be re-evaluating and in a constant dialogue with residents. Strategic governance also means not micromanaging departments: If we do decide to cut, it needs to be part of a strategic focus on reducing tax burden, which means telling departments to find ways to be more efficient and report back those plans.
I also believe that this process is part of the overall toolbox of reducing tax burden on residents. As the shareholders of the city, residents should be able to derive value from the success of the city. That is, there must be other sources of revenue the city can find that are not a burden on residents and pay-down the tax burden. The best projects pay for themselves or even generate additional revenue.
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.
Honestly I don’t know enough about it to have an intelligent answer. Contracts are contracts, so unless there was an easement, the city needs to respect the property rights of landowners unless it’s harming others. Using eminent domain makes me very uncomfortable; it’s generally a bad precedent.
Q8: What is your stance on the regulation of short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb?
I think that we need to let people do what they want with their property, and not being able to gain additional revenue from your own home is a serious limitation. AirBnB is a reality, just like Uber before it.
That said, we want to avoid a situation where outside forces buy up residential property for the explicit purpose of turning it into unattended mini-hotels. I think a good compromise is to allow AirBnB in residential areas if the owners are residents. There could be a strong and weak version of this: the weak version is that they simply must be residents, the strong version being that they must actually live at the property being used in this way. I favor the former, but I could see it working either way.
Q9: What is your stance on allowing Keno gambling in the city?
The fact that this is even an issue is amazing to me. Honestly, who still plays Keno. I feel that people should be able to do what they want with their businesses. The idea that Keno would suddenly take over the city is silly — businesses aren’t going to ruin their atmosphere for their core demographics just because it’s legal. But the fact that the council didn’t vote on this because there was literally no input one way or another is telling about how small of an issue this is.
Q10: Looking 10 to 20 years into the future…
A) What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Portsmouth?
B) What do you see as the city’s biggest opportunities?
C) How can the city start preparing for these challenges and opportunities now?
Portsmouth is at a crossroads that many other cities in the world have faced, and we have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes they’ve made and adopt best practices where they’ve been discovered. Our biggest challenge will be gracefully allowing for, and participating in, the growth of the city into the next stage of its development. If you have a child that you try to prevent growing up, you don’t get a child forever, you get a terrible adult. We need to let Portsmouth become what it is trying to be, and if we fight it rather than be a part of that change, we’ll repeat the mistakes of other cities and have a gentrified, sleepy town that only the very wealthy can afford. This challenge includes keeping our working class, family creators, and young people as our neighbors rather than pushing them out to other communities.
That presents us with a great opportunity to see a successful Portsmouth. A successful Portsmouth is affordable, vibrant, and engaged. When Portsmouth succeeds, we all benefit. We can have that success AND preserve our character.
Preparation for this involves adopting principles of strategic governance and engagement. Let’s get all of Portsmouth’s stakeholders — residents (renters and owners), businesses, workers, artists, and visitors — in on the conversation. Let’s adopt plans like the city’s 2025 Master Plan and re-evaluate them in an agile manner that gets everyone on board so that when the time comes to make critical decisions, no one feels like they are getting left out and the process isn’t painful. Let’s think outside the box and try things that haven’t been tried before — having more than one civic center of town, letting neighborhoods define themselves, seeking projects that generate revenue, etc.
I’m not trying to be vague here — these are all real things that can be done.
Also, I absolutely cannot wait for our 400th anniversary. That is an amazing milestone that, I think, defines us as a community in ways most others don’t have.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
Since my wife and I got married in May, we really want to re-use our wedding outfits, so we’re going for a Corpse Bride/Groom theme.
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.)