Portsmouth Not Complying with Conflict of Interest Provisions of the City Charter

Fans of transparent city government, heads-up: the City of Portsmouth is not complying with the “Conflict of Interest” requirements of its own Charter. Just as the US Constitution trumps all state and local laws, the City Charter trumps all city ordinances, rules and regulations. And an amendment (Amendment C –  Conflict of Interest) to the City Charter clearly says all city officials appointed or elected must reveal information about their income, assets and business dealings.

Nobody is saying officials have conflicts—it’s just that citizens have a legal right to know they don’t.

Portsmouth City Hall

Portsmouth City Hall, the seat of city government

A Conflict of Interest policy is one of the most important policies a city can have. It’s a critical way of making sure city government is transparent, meaning that things are not hidden from the public. It helps reassure folks that their elected and appointed officials are using their positions for the public good, and not to serve their own interests.

Amid a growth explosion, there’s been a lot of talk lately about requiring more financial disclosure of the city’s elected and appointed officials. The issue of “Financial Disclosure” is on the agenda of next Tuesday’s (Jan 21) City Council meeting under City Councilor Jack Thorsen’s name. http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/citycouncil/cc012114cp.pdf For awhile, the idea was to create new disclosure requirements. As it turns out, there’s no need for new requirements– they’re already in place. Trouble is, the city doesn’t seem to be following its own rules.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. Mandatory review boards and procedures to determine violation of the ordinance.
  3. Mandatory penalties for violations of the ordinance.
  4. 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

    Portsmouth City Hall

    Portsmouth City Hall, where the city’s elected and appointed officials and city staff conduct city business

However, a March 21, 1988 Portsmouth city ordinance amended a week later (March 28, 1988) manifestly does not comply with the City Charter’s above-listed Conflict of Interest requirements. Despite the Charter’s clear stipulation that the conflict of interest provisions must apply to “all” municipal officials “appointed or elected,” the 1988 ordinance limits that definition to the City Council and School Board only.  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.”



Portsmouth City Hall

If Portsmouth followed the Conflict of Interest provisions of the City Charter, some folks feel city government would be more transparent

Meanwhile, the 1988 Conflict of Interest/Mandatory Financial Disclosure ordinance narrowed the city’s financial disclosure requirements– in apparent violation of the City Charter– and added loopholes.

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.

As shown here, the city's current financial disclosure forms require very little financial information

As shown here, the city’s current financial disclosure forms require very little financial information

The last City Council financial disclosure forms, filed last June, reveal very limited financial data about the city’s top elected officials.

By way of example, in his notarized Financial Disclosure Statement, former Mayor and current City Councilor Eric Spear listed the following: Under “Primary Source of Annual Income,” Spear listed only “State of Maryland.” The section headed “Capital Assets” was crossed out, listing no assets. Yet the city’s own assessing records list Spear as an owner of record of a Portsmouth home assessed at $584,800. Is the public getting enough from the process to make an informed opinion?

To be fair, the current process provides very little financial disclosure information about the assets, incomes and any potential conflicts of interest for the rest of the City Council. Citizens have no information whatsoever about any potential conflicts of interest for most of the City’s other elected officials, and none at all about appointed officials or city staff as they carry out their public duties, doing the public’s business.   



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