Splaine: Agree or not, Portsmouth should listen to what Jayne Begala had to say

Jim Splaine

Whenever a Portsmouth citizen feels the need to say something, we should listen. One of the qualities that makes our community strong is the shared right to stand up and speak out, right or wrong.  

When Portsmouth Planning Board member Jayne Begala resigned last month and had something to say about it, her words were worth hearing.  Although a lot of people, including myself, may not agree with all of her comments, her message was passionate and obviously heartfelt. 

Jim Splaine

I won't review the details of her resignation speech − she expressed herself well − but I will address two aspects of what concerns her.

Master planning:   First is that she feels the Planning Board is not being involved enough in the master planning process.  She's right − it should be as involved as the members want it to be.  

It's a state requirement for planning boards to update citywide zoning as needed to keep an ever-changing community up-to-date on where development should go, what kind it should be, and setting forth requirements and limitations.  

To grow, communities need change.   

Throughout my years on the City Council during parts of six decades, I have been involved in four master plans.  They take time, incredibly extensive data collection, and an exhaustive commitment by city staff, developers, realtors, and citizens.  It can take a year and more.  

That it takes so long to accomplish is a good thing, and this current City Council has acted with positive steps to include more people in the land use and master planning process.  

Master planning is an absorbing task.  That the council created the new Land Use Committee and the more recent Affordable Housing Committee helps the cause.  From my view, both groups let many more citizens be involved than ever before.  More thought and citizen involvement can make better decisions. They supplement the work of Planning Board members.

Transparency:  A second point Jayne Begala raised is one that should concern everyone involved in our democracy:  governing should be done in the open. The people's business is the people's business.  She's right on that. In the case of the Planning Board, city staff are experts in planning, as well as other nuts and bolts operations of city government. That's why we pay them well.  

Oversight and being involved in decisions are the job of citizen volunteers.  That includes the hundreds who serve on everything from the City Council and School Board to the commissions, boards, and committees throughout city government. Jayne Begala's concern for transparency is something all in government should always be aware of.  Decisions, and the discussions leading to decisions that affect taxpayers and our way of life in our community should be public for all to see. Members of all city governing bodies have to be aware of that obligation, and have the discipline to guarantee it.  

The New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law must be followed by all our elected and appointed boards, commissions and committees.  

The preamble of that statute states, "Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.  The purpose of this chapter (the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law) is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people."

The New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law doesn't exist to make it more difficult for public officials to do their work.  Rather, it protects the rights of the minority members of an elected or appointed governing body. If five members become friends or allies and make decisions to the exclusion of the other four, then the minority becomes irrelevant to the process. 

We should have faith that our city staff and citizen volunteers of all boards, commissions and committees will have trust in one another, and in us, to follow the letter and intent of the state statute that for so long has protected the interests of all.  

It takes discipline − and sometimes courage − to resist discussing public issues privately in someone's office, home, or by email or telephone, but it makes for better government when that discussion, and the decisions resulting from it, is public for all to see.  

Next time: Our neighborhoods ARE "Portsmouth."  

Variously since 1969, Jim Splaine has been New Hampshire state senator for six years, representative for 24 years, Police Commission and School Board member, Portsmouth assistant mayor for 12 years and city councilor for 18 years. He can be reached at jimsplaineportsmouth@gmail.