Portsmouth’s municipal election is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Below, City Council candidate Kate Cook responds to PortsmouthNH.com’s candidate questionnaire.
Occupation: Educational and Nonprofit Consultant
Civic experience: U.S. Diplomat at U.S. Department of State, Board Chair for the Southern District YMCA, Membership Director for Friends of the South End (FOSE), Board Vice-Chair Exeter Historical Society, Board Treasurer of the Exeter Center for Creative Arts, Director of Homeless Children and Families Emergency Fund, Volunteer for Center for Creative Nonviolence Homeless Shelter in Washington, DC.
Years living in Portsmouth: 5 years in Portsmouth, 13 years on the Seacoast
1) Do you think the city should impose any new measures or mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic at this time?
I believe in making data-driven decisions with regards to public health. Rockingham County is currently experiencing an increase in cases of COVID-19. We have a high community transmission rate, which means that additional public health measures are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and those measures would help slow the spread of the disease. When spread is substantial or high, instituting a mask mandate for all city buildings would help protect our most vulnerable residents from infection, including children not yet eligible for vaccination. As recommended by the federal government, we should require all city employees to either show proof of vaccination, or a weekly negative test result to work on city property.
2) Do you think the Prescott Park Master Plan should be updated in any way? Specifically, do you think the stage should be temporary or permanent? Covered or uncovered?
The Prescott Park Master Plan process was a thorough and inclusive process that provided a plan for sea level rise mitigation for the park, while also planning for the long-term use of this vital community resource. Many community volunteers worked long hours to make sure we had a plan that responded to varying community interests. That said, a long period of time has passed between the initial visioning process and the groundbreaking on phase one of the project. I strongly suspect that many community members have no idea what the plans for the park involve, especially not the removal of the current formal garden space and its lovely trees. I also suspect that many opinions about a potential stage location and its size/shape have also changed. At a minimum, we need public outreach to discuss the current plan, but we should also consider revisiting the next phases of this project to make sure we have buy-in from the whole community.
As someone who grew up in a city with a covered bandstand in our main park, I know that this type of community resource benefits everyone. The school band could give concerts there in spring, the symphony could perform in the fall, we could host an outdoor performance as part of First Night, and the Prescott Park Arts Festival would have a home base for summer performances. A permanent covered stage, tastefully designed to blend with the architectural style of the historic buildings in the park, would be a community resource for generations to come.
3) How do you feel about the current pace of development in Portsmouth?
I think we are asking the wrong question. It is the right of private property owners to develop their land in accordance with the planning and zoning regulations of the city. We cannot control the pace of development beyond dictating in the planning and zoning laws, and the Historic District Commission rules, the specifics of what we expect in zoning districts and character districts. We are changing rapidly as a city. If we want to alter the type of development that is built in Portsmouth, we need to revisit the Master Plan and the zoning laws of the city. The next council should start a strategic visioning process for the city leading to a new master plan process. It is through that process that we can address resident concerns and make sure we are incentivizing the type of development we would like to see in the city.
4) What, if anything, do you think should be done to increase access to affordable housing?
We have a housing crisis in Portsmouth. Not only are we experiencing a shortage in affordable homes, but we are also experiencing a shortage of rental housing. When there is a shortage, the prices go up. At this point, everyone from service industry workers to young families cannot afford to live in Portsmouth, and the situation is directly impacting our police, firefighters, and teachers. At the same time, long-term residents are being forced out of their homes due to rising property taxes. We should take a multi-faceted approach to addressing this problem. First, we should work closely with the Portsmouth Housing Authority to identify locations for more workforce housing in the city. Second, we should incentivize homeowners to build accessory dwelling units in single family residential zones. Third, we need to alter our incentives for developers to build affordable housing, because our current incentives are not working. Finally, we should investigate additional tax abatement options for our residents who cannot afford a rising tax burden.
5) What changes, if any, should be made to the city’s bike lanes?
Our Complete Streets Policy serves as a guide for becoming a more walkable, bicycle-friendly city. We should move more quickly to provide safe passage for all our residents on local streets, thereby encouraging alternative modes of transportation, and reducing our dependency on automobiles. I would reinstall the bike lanes on Middle Street and listen to the traffic engineers on bike lane planning. I would also work with the City Manager to ensure that our Department of Public Works has the resources necessary to respond to citizen concerns around bicycle safety. The role of the council should be to make sure our street planning falls within the policy guidelines we have defined as a priority for the city, specifically increasing access to safe streets for everyone.
6) Regarding the McIntyre building, what do you feel is the best path forward to avoid litigation and get the project done?
Unfortunately, at this point we cannot avoid litigation completely. We are already investing taxpayer dollars into defending the city against a lawsuit filed by the developer because the city is in breach of contract. To avoid expending further funds, the council needs to return to the negotiating table with Redgate/Kane. We also need to involve Redgate/Kane in the discussions with the National Park Service (NPS) to decide the parameters of any development on the McIntyre site. While I personally like the new plan that resulted from the Portsmouth Listens visioning process, we do not yet know if it meets the requirements of the NPS Monuments program, and we do not know whether it is buildable. We must find a financially viable compromise plan in order to avoid spending considerable taxpayer dollars on this project. The next council should work with our development partner to best realize the community vision, while minimizing costs to taxpayers.
7) What additional measures do you think the city should take to slow climate change and prepare for its impacts?
This is one of the most critical issues facing Portsmouth. As a city we have taken numerous steps towards reducing our carbon footprint, however, we do not have a comprehensive plan that addresses all aspects of climate change mitigation, most specifically sea level rise and its impact on our waterfront. The council should work urgently to adopt a Climate Action Plan based on the work of the Sustainability Committee, along with work by our community partners like SEAREI, building on the Eco-Municipality’s Renewable Energy Policy, Complete Streets Program, and CREAT Climate Resiliency Report. The plan should be integrated into all aspects of city management, from planning and zoning to education, public works, and business regulation.
8) Do you support the idea of seasonal road closures and/or barriers to accommodate outdoor dining at restaurants — even after the pandemic has (hopefully) subsided?
Our restaurants have suffered significant financial losses during the pandemic. The road closures and barriers used to accommodate outdoor dining provided a ray of hope for our struggling restaurant industry. I would support making additional outdoor dining space permanent by expanding our sidewalks to accommodate outdoor tables. The added benefit of this type of expansion would be to slow traffic in our downtown, creating a more pedestrian friendly zone.
9) What do you think the council can do to cultivate an environment of respect and collaboration and minimize hostility in local government?
We must all first remember that we love Portsmouth, even though we do not always share the same views on what is best for the city. When approaching any city challenge, the council should first discuss the points on which we agree. Then we should work through our differences of opinion towards a final consensus. Next, we must respect our city staff, and their expertise, and clearly articulate the roles of the council and the staff. Additionally, we must all follow the rules of the council when interacting at city meetings, and where those rules are not well-defined, we need to further define them to clearly articulate the exact expectations of our council members. Only by making sure our rules are clear and precise can we guarantee an ethical, transparent process for our citizens. Without that, people lose faith in local government, and ultimately quit investing in our city.
10) Aside from the issues already raised in this questionnaire, please outline ONE other priority you would address as a city councilor over the next two years.
Portsmouth has started to receive American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government that will ultimately total $12.88M. Our council is specifically limited in spending these funds to five areas: 1) supporting the public health response, 2) addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic in the community, 3) replacing public sector revenue lost, 4) providing premium pay for essential workers, and 5) water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure not already planned/funded. Our council should focus spending on urgent recovery efforts and infrastructure deficiencies brought to light by the pandemic.
Currently we have a childcare crisis that is specifically impacting women and preventing many of them from returning to work. We also have several small businesses and non-profits that have not recovered from the pandemic. The new council should focus on these immediate needs of the community, namely incentivizing essential childcare workers to return to work and supporting our small businesses and non-profits through pandemic recovery grants. Then, the council should consider broadband expansion in Portsmouth to correct an infrastructure deficiency that created additional burden on some residents during the pandemic.
BONUS: What are you going to be for Halloween?
A Garden Gnome
To see other candidates’ responses, click here.