With Portsmouth awash in development dollars, the City Council tonight (Mon Oct. 20, 7 pm) will vote on first reading of a conflict of interest & financial disclosure ordinance that exempts their income and assets under $10,000 and more, and lets key city officials off the hook. But some wary residents say the new rules are nowhere near enough to convince taxpayers that city government is really transparent, and they fall far short of what the City Charter requires.
Amid a growth explosion, the goal is to reassure taxpayers that no elected or appointed official is violating the public’s trust by profiting directly or indirectly from an elected or appointed position, not to mention their spouses. Advocates argue that Portsmouth desperately needs tighter conflict and disclosure rules now, and that folks with nothing to hide should not object. Detractors insist that tighter rules would scare people out of city politics and city government and off the land use boards that are making so many crucial decisions about developments across the city. The current conflict and disclosure rules only require that City Councilors and School Board members list assets and sources of regular income over $5,000 in one year. A Local Government Center lawyer consulted by City Councilors Esther Kennedy and Jack Thorsen said these fall far short of the requirements of a 1987 city charter change approved by two-thirds of Portsmouth voters. Conventional wisdom is that any local ordinance must comply with the city charter, which is like the city’s Constitution.
The new ordinance would add the Police and Fire Commissions—but exempt key city officials like the City Manager, City Attorney, Planning staff or any of the land use boards. The new rules raise the disclosure threshold to $10,000 in assets and income, but mandate that the form follow the format of the more detailed state disclosure form. By a 5-4 vote, the City Council on Oct 6 shot down an effort to tighten city conflict and disclosure requirements by extending them to all city department heads and land use boards. Voting against stricter disclosure requirements were Mayor Bob Lister and City Councilors Brad Lown, Eric Spear, Stefany Shaheen and Chris Dwyer. Voting to tighten requirements were Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine and City Councilors Esther Kennedy, Jack Thorsen and Zelita Morgan.
WANT THE CITY COUNCIL TO TIGHTEN $ CONFLICT RULES?
To encourage the City Council to go for more government transparency and genuine financial disclosure for all department heads and land use boards, email them ASAP at:
IN CASE YOU WANT MORE BACKGROUND DETAILS, FYI, THE CITY CHARTER CLEARLY REQUIRES ALL APPOINTED OR ELECTED CITY OFFICIALS TO FILE FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE
Portsmouth actually has a very powerful Conflict of Interest law. Approved by two-thirds of the voters in 1987, it is so strong it is embedded in the City Charter. A Charter change adopted by referendum vote on Nov. 3, 1987 clearly states that the City Council within 60 days “shall” create a Conflict of Interest Ordinance requiring financial disclosure of all elected and appointed city officials. Here, verbatim, is what it says: “The ordinance will contain as a minimum, but is not limited to:
- Mandatory financial disclosure by all police, school, municipal officials, whether appointed or elected, of current personal sources of income and all capital assets including, but not limited to, stock and real estate holdings and interests, in a sworn statement before the City Clerk at least biannually or before assuming office.
- Mandatory review boards and procedures to determine violation of the ordinance.
- Mandatory penalties for violations of the ordinance.
- Comprehensive definition of such violations, and procedures to be used in reporting, investigating, and correcting the results of violations.”http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/cityclerk/documents/revisedcharter.pdf
However, a March 21, 1988 Portsmouth city ordinance amended a week later (March 28, 1988) manifestly does not comply with the City Charter’s conflict of interest requirements. Despite the Charter’s (the city Constitution’s) clear stipulation that these apply to “all” municipal officials “appointed or elected,” the 1988 ordinance limits that definition to the City Council and School Board: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/citycouncil/cc012114cp.pdf
In stark contrast, Chapter 1, Article VIII, Code of Ethics (p. 27) of the city’s own ordinances clearly defines city “officers” as “every member of the City Council, School Board, Police Commission, Fire Commission, each member of every land use regulatory board, i.e. the Board of Adjustment, Planning Board, Historic District Commission, Conservation Commission, Technical Advisory Committee, Traffic Safety Committee, Building Code Board of Appeals, Recreation Board, Planning and Development Council, and Economic Development Commission, every department head as that term is used in the Administrative Code, Chief of Police, Fire Chief, Superintendent of Schools, the Trustees of the Trust Funds and members of the Housing Authority.”
LATER PORTSMOUTH ORDINANCE LIMITED DISCLOSURE AND ADDED LOOPHOLES
Instead, the 1988 Conflict of Interest/Mandatory Financial Disclosure ordinance strayed from the City Charter and narrowed the city’s financial disclosure requirements.
Instead of requiring disclosure of all sources of income, the 1988 ordinance geographically limited disclosure requirements to “corporate stocks or bonds or any other business interests” involving the City of Portsmouth or doing “substantial” business in Portsmouth. It required financial disclosure under oath only of officials’ “primary” source of annual income and capital assets– and required no disclosure of income under $5,000. And it turns out the city is not even enforcing the requirements of its watered-down 1988 ordinance—the ordinance that clearly violates the City Charter. The simple form adopted under the 1988 ordinance only asks for income and assets, and the resulting information seems almost meaningless. The last City Council financial disclosure forms reveal only very limited financial data about the city’s top elected officials.
“Most of them own houses. Some of them own businesses. What does that tell us?” asks one unhappy taxpayer. “So what?”