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: Josh Denton
Occupation: Congressional Liaison / Technology Transfer Specialist for the U.S. Army Labs
Years lived in Portsmouth: 8 of past 10 (lived in Concord for first two years of law school)
Public service experience: Eagle Scout; Iraq War veteran & former Army officer; Portsmouth’s 2012 “Welcome Home” End of Iraq War Parade organizer; member of Portsmouth’s Sustainability Committee since 2013; Portsmouth city councilor since 2016; and chair of Portsmouth’s Renewable Energy Committee since July.
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?
Yes, but my preference is including a direct actionable item for the city of Portsmouth in the resolution. I have brought forward numerous resolutions that passed unanimously this past year regarding climate change that included direct actionable items. The first endorsed the Energize 360 campaign for solar and home energy efficiency audits that directed city personnel to help residents navigate any applicable city codes, ordinances, and permitting. The second endorsed a petition to move forward toward offshore wind development that was sent to Gov. Sununu to encourage him to request the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management form a task force and stakeholder process. The third endorsed Carbon Fee & Dividend and was sent to our Congressional Delegation to support such legislation.
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 addition to Portsmouth being the City of the Open Door, I supported this resolution because all politics are local. Further, most resolutions are brought forward by individual city councilors only after the City Council has voted on the city manager’s actionable items, meaning that the City Council has completed the bulk of the agenda and the only time city councilors spend on the resolutions is our own.
- 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 was excited when Mayor Blalock came to the council for approval to support the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of global carbon emissions reaching net zero sometime in the second half of the century to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Earlier, I proposed the idea of creating a Renewable Energy Committee, and since the mayor permitted me to recruit the committee, he appointed the members, and by the end of the year the committee I chair will produce a local energy policy to move toward a “net zero” carbon emissions goal.
- 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.
City councilors cannot abstain from voting. I understand the disappointment of veterans that contacted me regarding my vote in favor of this resolution who said disrespecting the national anthem and the flag disrespects all that have sacrificed under its banner. To me, those that sacrificed under the flag did so to protect this very freedom to stand up, speak out, and protest.
Q2: Regarding the Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF), please share your thoughts on the following:
I firmly believe in transparency and want to start by disclosing to any unaware readers that my girlfriend is the PPAF’s production manager. We are not married, do not have any shared financial interests, and do not currently live together.
- Should there be fewer PPAF events each year?
I do not support the 2018 season agreement being presented to the PPAF for signature that reduces concerts from 24 to 22, would eliminate movie nights, and eliminate many community showcases.
- Should there be limits on audience sizes?
My primary concern regarding audience sizes is the city providing appropriate levels of protection for audiences in Prescott Park. To be clear, there is no current threat, but earlier this year I raised concerns regarding the lack of a barrier to prevent vehicles from driving into large crowds at events.
- Should PPAF events end earlier?
No. The popular movie nights will not return under the proposed agreement’s 10 p.m. end time, because movies cannot begin until the sun goes down and therefore will not be able to be viewed in their entirety before the projector is turned off. Further, many of the popular Friday and Saturday early evening community showcases will not be able to return under a 10 p.m. end time, because they usually occur before the play itself and the plays will be forced to start earlier in the evening.
- Should the volume of events be reduced?
Before I started dating the PPAF’s production manager, I was the only city councilor that voted for a permanent stage in the Prescott Park Master Plan, which would be more effective to mitigate sound levels in living spaces than just reorienting the new stage to mitigate the sound. However, the report back from the city’s new sound monitoring system showed that decibel levels rarely exceed 80 to 85 decibels, and decibel levels were sometimes at their highest after performances ended.
- Is consumption of alcohol during PPAF events a problem that warrants stricter enforcement?
No, but to be clear, consuming alcohol anywhere in Prescott Park is not allowed. The city’s proposal to require the PPAF to pay for additional police for this purpose during PPAF season is not warranted, especially if the city does not enforce the issue equally elsewhere in Prescott Park.
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 am a strong believer in transparency. I championed campaign finance reform within the current charter, voted for the campaign finance reform charter amendment, and voted to keep the city manager in the other charter amendment regarding land use boards disclosing their sources of income in Portsmouth.
B) Do you think city government has been accessible enough for residents? If not, what can be done to make it more accessible?
City government has been accessible, but can always be more accessible. I am the only city councilor running for reelection that voted to add Public Dialogue in addition to Public Comment. I subsequently voted to alternate the two to allow residents to try the Public Dialogue pilot, which many responded to positively. My preference, however, would be for the City Council to hold Public Dialogue, city staff to then make miscellaneous presentations, and then the City Council hold Public Comment all on the Sunday before City Council meetings, alternating mornings and evenings. City Council packets could be reviewed prior, different residents could participate in the forum of their choice, and city councilors can use this input to make important decisions much earlier in the following evening’s City Council meeting.
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?
Having waited tables before and after law school, I understand the need for and have consistently supported creating more affordable and workforce housing. New Hampshire does not allow for rent control that could otherwise potentially benefit the renting half of our population. The Housing Committee offered an alternative increasing housing supply approach via development recommendations that I want to succeed. However, as I frequently comment, increasing housing stock to bring down prices is just a theory; it can take up to eight years to see fruition, if ever, and markets are driving the building of luxury units instead of the needed inexpensive units. My preference remains brick and mortar approaches like my proposal to increase the affordable housing incentive from 10 percent to 20 percent for developers wanting to build larger buildings. Although I am the only city councilor seeking reelection that supported that proposal, I hope similar proposals gain support like waiving extraction fees for new affordable or workforce housing developments.
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. Downtown’s lack of parking is one reason why home revaluations outpaced commercial revaluations. I proposed the Gary’s Beverage location for a second parking garage during my 2013 City Council campaign, am the only city councilor running for reelection that voted for a new appraisal prior to the city’s 2016 purchase of the Deer Street land, and still support the project because the location keeps cars from even entering downtown. The cost of parking should incentivize parking farther away from downtown and disincentive parking close. Key to this strategy is greatly extending the hours of the shuttle service to the free parking lot to allow industry workers to catch a shuttle back to their cars after restaurants and bars close. This program would obviously not just benefit those that work in the city, and I am open to other programs like allowing business owners to implement a parking validation program for their employees.
B) Do you think Portsmouth should develop a neighborhood parking program for people who live in the city? If so, how would it work?
Yes. If it is legal, the city could start by giving residents preference over non-residents when it comes to applying for vacant spots in the garage (the city already offers nominal garage parking fees during snow emergencies, and I would encourage any interested reader to sign up for the downtown snow ban text alert I initiated so you know when to move your car to the garage). The city could also further pursue neighborhood-only on-street parking programs. Further, the city should offer residents a discount to join the parking revenue funded Zagster bicycle sharing program and expand it to the neighborhoods outside the downtown to encourage residents not use their cars in the first place.
Q6: Do you think the city should cut spending in order to lower taxes? If so, where specifically would you make cuts?
I support alternative ways to raise revenue as opposed to drastically cutting next year’s fiscal budget. Residential revaluation increases stem from the desire to live in Portsmouth, a housing shortage, and new expensive luxury condos, which, combined, are causing home values to outpace commercial property values. Residents trying to rely on fixed incomes, downsize, or buy their first homes like myself, are all being negatively impacted by this hot housing market. Drastic service cuts would be required to reduce the budget that primarily goes toward personnel, is determined by collective bargaining, and is increasing due to rising healthcare costs. The state Legislature essentially mandates high property taxes by downshifting their shortfall from not having a sales or income tax and should authorize municipalities to adopt local meals & room taxes and homestead exemptions. In the meantime, Portsmouth should renegotiate the fixed amount Pease’s commercial properties pay for Portsmouth’s emergency services to help offset the residential revaluation burden.
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?
No. However, this matter is still under litigation and, as a current member of the City Council, I am not going to elaborate further to avoid disclosing information.
B) Should the city proceed with efforts to take the land by eminent domain?
Yes. I stand by my vote, but again, this matter is still under litigation and as a current member of the City Council, I am not going to elaborate further to avoid disclosing information.
Q8: What is your stance on the regulation of short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb?
Once the state allows the regulation of short-term rentals, I think the city should consider how best to allow property owners that want to make extra money by renting their extra rooms as short-term rentals to do so. A big concern of mine, however, is the impact this will have on the affordable housing stock. In some places throughout the country like Portland, Maine, affordable homes are being purchased solely to be rented as short-term rentals for profit. This practice would further exacerbate the current lack of affordable housing in the city.
Q9: What is your stance on allowing Keno gambling in the city?
I did not vote for Keno to be on the November ballot. I regular numerous Portsmouth establishments, and while we have many fine bars in restaurants, very few local bars remain with The Press Room getting renovated, State Street gone, and the Coat closed. One of my fears with Keno is that the bars that remain, like D Street, Harpoon Willy’s, or even the Rusty Hammer, might be radically changed if the owners elected to have Keno. Given the low turnout in municipal elections, I can see patrons that did not know it was up for a vote walk into their favorite establishments one day and find them unrecognizable. With no one testifying for or against Keno at the public hearing, I later learned that some members of the Elks hoped it would be on the ballot to boost their revenue. However, I spoke with some members of the VFW before their canteen closed and learned they actually opposed Keno, thinking they would lose business to downtown establishments with Keno even if they had Keno of their own.
Q10: Looking 10 to 20 years into the future…
A) What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Portsmouth?
Climate change. Federal grant money is currently being used for a Historic Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan that is assessing the projected damage to our historic properties in downtown, Strawbery Banke, the South End, and along the North Mill Pond. If the world is not surpassing the Paris Climate Accords targets 10 to 20 years from now, it will not just be our historic properties that will be becoming more vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, and severe precipitation.
B) What do you see as the city’s biggest opportunities?
Addressing climate change will continue to spur our local green economy that today’s far more conscientious elementary and middle school students will be inheriting in 10 to 20 years. In addition to specialized jobs to work on solar array installations, energy efficiency projects, and yet-to-be-developed unknown technologies, if a task force created by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recommends regional offshore wind, the Port of New Hampshire could be a hub used for some of the staging, assembly, and maintenance of the wind turbines themselves.
C) How can the city start preparing for these challenges and opportunities now?
The City Council adopting and city staff implementing the Renewable Energy Policy that is currently being drafted by the Renewable Energy Committee do our part towards mitigating climate change. The policy is meant to provide guidance to city boards, committees, and departments to help the government of the city of Portsmouth, the Pease Development Authority, and the larger community within the city’s borders become a net zero community. One aspect of the policy will likely call for zoning changes including energy efficiency building incentives, electric vehicle charging station parking incentives, and the elimination of the solar array property tax exemption’s five-year limit and $25,000 cap.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
The Halloween Parade is my favorite memory of Portsmouth as a UNH undergrad, and it was the reason I often gave in Iraq for wanting to move here upon getting out of the Army. This year I want to march as undead versions of the two lead characters from “Mary Poppins,” but my girlfriend is not sold on the idea.
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.)