ISSUE 1: WERE THE HDC PUBLIC HEARING & VOTE ON HARBORCORP A CHARADE?
Just when ethics and conflict of interest problems have embroiled the Police Department and triggered a public uproar, a legal request for a city board to reconsider the Historic District Commission’s Harborcorp approval and Conditional Use Permit raises questions about transparency and the democratic process in Portsmouth city government and its land use boards.
The administrative appeal filed with the city last Thursday (asking for the Board of Adjustment to reconsider the HDC’s various OKs of the project) alleges that the Portsmouth Planning Department wrote the draft decision approving HarborCorp and the permit to let it rise above the 45-foot height limit before the HDC held its public hearing and final vote this June 10. The motion– accompanied by a hefty 750-page booklet of supporting documents– also alleges that city Principal Planner Nick Cracknell leaked word of the HDC’s pending appproval to HarborCorp’s lawyer hours before the public hearing and vote (see PDF of memo cover sheet below). (Tellingly, the motion reads, HDC chair Joseph Almeida asked for the Planning Department to draft the approval (ie. saying “Yes”) before the public hearing, but did not ask for a draft decision saying “No” in case the board voted against it).
“In short, the June 10, 2015 public hearing was a sham,” lawyer Jerry Zelin wrote on behalf of 196 appellants. “The outcome was determined and communicated to HarborCorp before the hearing.” The Planning Board hearing was similarly “tainted” by behind-the-scenes decision-making, the motion alleges.
Two volunteer Portsmouth lawyers, Jerry Zelin and City Council candidate Duncan MacCallum, worked countless unpaid hours compiling the motion on behalf of 196 individuals more or less affiliated with a wide range of groups from the APT to Portsmouth Listens and no group in particular. The lawyers got their most explosive information via Freedom of Information Act requests of the type investigative reporters usually use. (Why does it take unpaid volunteers to dig this stuff up when there’s a daily newspaper in the city? This email story was spoon-fed to the Portsmouth Herald last week. Why did the Herald sit on the story for days instead of reporting it? Speculation is rampant, ranging from blaming the overworked reporter on this beat to his editor, his boss’s boss, or their publisher for alleged bias, or the giant hedge fund that now owns the Herald and hundreds of other American newspapers. Is it about the coming election? Readers are in the dark). But contrary to astroturf PR and City Hall real estate lobbyists’ claims, the appellants say they are not against development or grocery stores. It’s just that they feel the city’s largest megabuilding– spanning three lots and several football fields– would be way more people-friendly and better for the city in the long run if it were split up and built on a more human scale.
“At a time when police conflict of interest and transparency problems have sent shock waves rippling through the city, these latest allegations raise serious questions about what’s going on at Portsmouth City Hall,” this blogger noted. “This is why we need strict, meaningful conflict of interest and financial disclosure requirements at all levels of city government from all our city officials elected and appointed. It’s why we need to elect a Mayor and City Councilors who are straight-shooters with the backbone to clean up our city government and fight for taxpayers’ interests. What’s going on here? Is this the tip of the iceberg?”
Here’s a PDF of the controversial p. 520 memo cover sheet in the 750-page document book supporting the appeal, communicating the HDC decision to Harborcorp before its vote:
ISSUE 2: DID THE CITY ADMINISTRATION TRY TO MAKE AN END RUN AROUND THE CITY COUNCIL TO DEPRIVE TAXPAYERS’ ACCESS TO PUBLIC INFORMATION?
Without asking the City Council, a member of the city’s legal team earlier this year testified on the city’s behalf in favor of a bill that would have made it more expensive for citizens to get information about their city government under the Right-to-Know law, according to departing City Councilor Zelita Morgan. The bill was tabled, but Morgan warns that it could come up again and make it harder for residents to get access to public information. Morgan, who plans to bring it up at tonight’s City Council meeting, says voting also costs municipalities money, but cities don’t charge citizens to vote. She urges anyone interested in open access to public information to speak out during public comment at the meeting’s start or email the Council at http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/citycouncil/index-allrequest.htm.
ISSUE 3: IS THE PORTSMOUTH HERALD’S ONLINE CORRECTIONS POLICY GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE 21ST CENTURY?
Puzzled readers have asked us about an article published in the Portsmouth Herald last Sunday, Oct. 11. The story, which had a prominent front-page teaser, was riddled with errrors and damaging innuendo about Portsmouth Now!, wrongly repeating as fact– multiple times– developers’ claims that Portsmouth Now! has filed lawsuits and appeals against developers and the city. For the record, Portsmouth Now! has never filed any lawsuits or legal actions against anybody. On Wed., Oct 14—three days after the story ran– the Herald finally posted a corrected version of the story online. On Thursday, Oct. 15– four days after the story ran– the Herald finally ran a correction on p. 2 of its print edition. But the people who asked us about the story said they missed the correction, and we were not able to find it posted online.
For what it’s worth, an axiom of good journalism is that errors must be acknowledged and prominently posted as fast as possible. Here is what a leading journalism school reports about the Washington Post’s online media corrections policy