Come together (again)

A guide to more of Portsmouth’s many citizens groups

When we profiled five of Portsmouth’s citizens groups in our July 29 issue, we expected to get feedback from readers. What was surprising, though, was how much feedback we received — Portsmouth residents are passionate about the city’s citizens groups. A number of readers pointed out groups that didn’t make it into the first feature, and because of the overwhelming positive response, we’ve followed up with a second set of group profiles. The groups are listed below in alphabetical order.

You can find the July 29 story at If we’ve missed a group, let us know at [email protected].

Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers

Founding: “It’s been around a long time … (about) 30 years,” says APT president Mark Brighton. The group meets once a month and its mission is “to be a watchdog for the taxpayers of Portsmouth. Mainly, we monitor city spending; the budget is obviously the big thing. We try to go over it with a fine-tooth comb.”

Members: Around 15 members, Brighton says, although “I was once told by someone that … APT is good for 100 votes (in city elections) because of our endorsement.”

Biggest accomplishment: “To keep the budget process (open), to be asking questions. Obviously, with the budget going at twice the rate of inflation for the past 20 years, sometimes I wonder how much effect we’ve had. But I know we keep asking questions year after year, and it at least forces the politicians to take a look and talk about it honestly.”

Biggest challenge facing Portsmouth: “The budget. City spending is out of control and has been for two decades. Many local politicians like to talk about the tax rate, but it’s a smoke and mirrors discussion. … When you have people leaving because of the expenditures of the municipality, something’s wrong. The demographic shift I’ve seen — I’m a lifelong resident — is it all due to city spending? Heck no, but it’s becoming a large part of it. They have chased the working class out of the city … and are working on chasing out the middle class.”

Why residents are civically engaged: “It’s an educated citizenry. I think that helps tremendously. Right now the engagement is (about) development. There’s plenty of passion among the citizenry; I wish I could tap into that in terms of city spending. Right now it’s about development. It’s just one of the circles of politics.”

Portsmouth Advocates

Founding: “Portsmouth Advocates was founded in 1980; we are celebrating our 35th year of being an integral organization in the community,” says president Kerry Vautrot. “It was founded with two goals: to promote the retention of the architectural character of the city … (and) promoting the preservation, maintenance, rehabilitation, and restoration of significant historic structures inside and outside of the historic district. … We’re really dedicated to the preservation of the city’s unique character. … We’re planning an awards ceremony in September; we’re going to play catch-up a little bit and highlight some of the great work that has happened.”

Supporters: “In 2011 or 2012, Portsmouth Advocates merged with the PHS (Portsmouth Historical Society), so we count as our membership the membership of PHS, which is about 250.”

Biggest accomplishment: “Having such a long history, there are a few things to choose from. Some of our biggest accomplishments were in the ’80s and ’90s, when we did architectural surveys throughout the city. These surveys are still used by the Historic District Commission in determining whether a building is a contributing resource. They provided a baseline survey for identifying what’s historic and what’s not. It’s something that’s held its value.”

Top challenge facing Portsmouth: “What we’re seeing is there is a penchant for the only appropriate new architecture for Portsmouth is something that’s been dubbed “traditional architecture,” and that’s not necessarily the way we think it should be going. … It doesn’t have to mimic what’s there now. That’s a real challenge, feeling that the only thing that could possibly fit is “traditional” architecture. We’re not a full museum, so we should be making sure our impact on the building environment from this generation is seen as well.”

Why residents are civically engaged: “It all boils down to pride of place. … There’s a general feeling it’s your city … (and) that feeling of ownership and vested interest is what makes people stay at meetings until midnight or give up weekends to attend charettes, or learn about the city. … It really compels people to gather together to work to influence the future of the city.”

Portsmouth Listens

Founding: “What Portsmouth Listens does is community dialogues,” says co-chair Jim Noucas. “The first community dialogue (Portsmouth Listens hosted) was in 1999. The third dialogue was for the 2003 master plan review. Because it … went well, people said we need to create an ongoing nonprofit community organization to continue these dialogues and … in 2004, Portsmouth Listens was formally created.”

Supporters: “The steering committee of Portsmouth Listens is 13 people, and all it does is convene dialogues — we meet monthly to see if we need to do a community dialog. Over years, about 1,500 people have participated in community dialogues. When you figure that each dialogue involves a minimum of eight hours of participant time, these 1,500 people have committed over 12,000 hours of deliberation on issues critical to making Portsmouth the best place to live, work, and play for everyone.”

Biggest accomplishment: “I don’t think any particular issue is more important than any other. What’s significant is that we’ve continued to sustain community dialogues as a means of public improvement in Portsmouth. Our mission is to be a neutral convener of dialogues … on critical issues.”

Top challenge facing Portsmouth: “The master plan is of significance because it includes long-term planning for a lot of critical issues now before the city: transportation and parking, zoning … the master plan is your recipe for quality of life. As a starting point to solving any of these problems, you need to have a good plan.”

Why residents are civically engaged: “I think they’ve continued to be engaged because they’ve seen value in the deliberations and they’ve had an impact on the city that’s been positive, and I think that’s important. (There have been) a bunch of case studies on Portsmouth Listens. There was an international competition a few years ago put on by a German foundation … (and) Portsmouth Listens was one of the finalists. … We also received the Sarah Farmer Peace Award, and we’ve been featured in a book called ‘Slow Democracy.’”

Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century

Founding: “Our first event was about a year and a half ago, and we wanted to have a discussion (that) was less about people saying that they liked a particular building or didn’t like a particular building and more about the general principles of what would make good development,” says Doug Roberts, one of the group’s founders.

Supporters: “We have a steering committee of about eight people. We’re kind of an informal group. We have registered as a nonprofit, but we’re not a 501(c)(3). We’ve so far relied on other groups, like Seacoast Local, to be our fiscal agents. We have a steering committee that meets occasionally and trie