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: Rebecca Perkins Kwoka
Occupation: in-house lawyer for a renewable energy company
Years lived in Portsmouth: 5 this time around
Public service experience:
• City Councilor (Chair of the Housing Committee, Chair of the Strategic Revitalization Committee for Vaughn-Worth-Bridge, Planning Board, Renewable Energy Committee, Parking Garage Committee, Regional Planning Commission)
• Commissioner, Portsmouth Housing Authority
• Board of Directors, Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast
• Founder and Board Member, 603 Initiative
• Board President, Natik
• Peace Corps Volunteer, Senegal, West Africa
• Member, State Workforce Housing Advisory Council
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 have never brought one of these resolutions.
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.”
We are the City of the Open Door, so this is a nice message.
- 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.
Many residents asked for and celebrated this.
- 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.
What we passed was a resolution to support the Portsmouth schools in educating on diversity and free speech.
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?
This is up to the Prescott Park Advisory Committee, for them to balance against all of the other factors involved, but in general the festival needs to be economically sustainable to continue to be such an amazing asset to the city, which will be difficult if we handcuff it too much.
- Should the volume of events be reduced?
I believe they are discussing fewer really big shows.
- Is consumption of alcohol during PPAF events a problem that warrants stricter enforcement?
Not at all. There have been very few problems over many years, and this should be a casual event that people enjoy.
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’m not sure what this question means. We are a public body, and all of our operations are public in accordance with 91-A. Do I think we can improve communication? Absolutely, and we as a council have been pushing relentlessly for this.
B) Do you think city government has been accessible enough for residents? If not, what can be done to make it more accessible?
Myself and three other councilors recently led changes we passed to alternate public comment sessions with public dialogues, include email correspondence in the public council packet, and change the structure of our meeting to make it easier to understand and participate in. The idea is to make government more efficient and effective, and make sure we are not favoring one form of communication (such as in-person public speaking at 7 p.m.) over all of the others (online, via phone, via survey, via email, etc.). We have many young families and others who, due to work demands or families, cannot participate in our city government, and we want to welcome all forms of participation.
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?
I do not think the city should use its land to build housing and be a landlord. We have plenty of local expertise to harness for this problem, including changing our zoning, including affordability covenants, and supporting Portsmouth Housing Authority.
I have championed zoning changes over the entire two years I have been in office, both as chair of the Housing Committee and a member of the Planning Board, and they’re on the verge of being passed. They have been a tremendous effort and I commend the staff and others involved in the greater Portsmouth housing community — including the Housing Huddle, a collaborative group of stakeholders — for supporting this effort over the last two years. I think these changes will be a huge concrete step forward for affordable and workforce housing.
- 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?
The mayor and I have already called for this and it is in process — in fact, I believe it was unveiled recently, with spots available for $50/month via permit. Personally, I am concerned about the folks who are coming to Portsmouth for an 8- or 9-hour shift (because they can’t afford to live in town, which I am trying to address), and have to spend an hour’s worth of wages paying for parking. These workers keep Portsmouth vital as much as anyone and we should make it easier for them. It would work by creating a permit that has a fixed up-front price that you can use to park for certain locations. Right now it sounds like it makes sense for at least one of those locations to be the new garage, but we are awaiting the results of a comprehensive Parking Needs study and a report back from the parking director.
B) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a neighborhood parking program for people who live in the city? If so, how would it work?
For the neighborhoods very close to downtown, it likely makes sense. I know this is a problem in our neighborhood, and we’re concerned about the new garage attracting more people in to our neighborhood. This is something I think we need the new study to help with.
Q6: Do you think the city should cut spending in order to lower taxes? If so, where specifically would you make cuts?
I am comfortable with the budgets our Council passed. Ideally we should grow the budget as little as possible, but we have heard many, many calls to protect the quality of the schools, keep the city safe, and make improvements — from bike lanes to athletic fields to more parking to more green space. These items all cost money, and we’ve acted to balance these requests with prudent long-term fiscal management. We passed a 1.85-percent increase in the budget last year, which I feel very comfortable with. The increase in our property valuations has to be weighed against our mill rate below 16 per thousand — the lowest out of the 13 cities in the state and something we should be very proud of. Our home prices are also rising, and this is an issue I have been working tirelessly on for two years — it is the issue I ran on, as we absolutely cannot afford to keep losing young people and families, and we want to keep the wisdom and knowledge of our seniors as well. Zoning changes I have shepherded throughout my term to address this issue are in front of the Council now. What keeps me up at night is the long-term health of our state retirement system and the fact that Portsmouth has had to absorb these costs — rising in some years at double digits — into our local budget
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?
The Council has attempted many times to reach a settlement.
B) Should the city proceed with efforts to take the land by eminent domain?
Of course we all wish that no conversation with a business in town ever reached the level of a dispute. This is a complicated issue, and I recommend providing more information to your readers if you are going to include this question. Remember, every story has two sides.
Q8: What is your stance on the regulation of short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb?
My only two concerns with Airbnb are long-term housing affordability (which Airbnb affects), and the occasional guests who abuse it. There are many places in our city where normal use of an Airbnb would create no disturbance whatsoever, and in those cases people should be allowed to use their homes as they wish. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching how other cities handle this, and we have a unique regulation that I think is working pretty well for now. Zoning is designed to protect your expectations about your home and the things that will be around it, so I think allowing Airbnb by permit in certain zones might be another option we can look at.
Q9: What is your stance on allowing Keno gambling in the city?
We have never put issues like this on the ballot — here in Portsmouth, we are not a referendum government, we are a representative government, and we should protect that. Aside from that, I voted against this for three reasons: 1) we are getting $1,100 from the state for full-day kindergarten [per student] regardless of whether we allow Keno, 2) there was only a very remote chance we would get any additional revenue from Keno whatsoever, and 3) no one advocated for it, when the known negative effects of gambling often result in public costs.
- Looking 10 to 20 years into the future…
A) What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Portsmouth?
Business expansion due to workforce shortage and low enrollment in our schools. We have had a massive outflow of residents ages 30-45, and I ran to help reverse this trend. I have been working on zoning changes as a first step to address this since I was elected. I also worry about retirement spending for public employees, depending on what the state does, but so far we have been able to manage that as a city. We also need to reunite our residents to feel like one City.
B) What do you see as the city’s biggest opportunities?
The incredible demand by people to be here! Let’s open our arms to this. Portsmouth’s population has only shrunk in 20 years, and we need to grow to be sustainable.
C) How can the city start preparing for these challenges and opportunities now?
We do it every day, and spend a lot of time on behalf of this great city and its residents!
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
I think we will be Princess Peach and Yoshi this year.
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.)