Model Behavior: Working Closely with Your Local Legislative Delegation

M. Chris Dwyer, Portsmouth City Councilor

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

In Portsmouth, we’ve developed an effective structure for maintaining timely communication among the members of our legislative delegation, city councilors and city staff during the busy legislative session. For the last four biennial sessions, a council subcommittee, comprised of the mayor and three city councilors, joined by the city manager and a staff attorney, has met every few weeks with our house members and state senator.

Meetings are guided by a shared agenda where anyone can place a topic on the table. There is always a lively and wide-ranging exchange, exploring the intentions behind proposed and emerging bills and the consequences for Portsmouth residents. We discuss municipal needs and the potential points to be made in testimony on bills of interest and concern. Sometimes we work with a member of the delegation to craft language for a bill to be introduced on the city’s behalf or an amendment to improve a bill. The pace of discussion is fast, the mood is collegial, and the intentionality is clear.

During a recent meeting, for example, the topics ranged from Airbnb and ride sharing to availability of state funds for storm water management, the effect of accessory dwelling units on our zoning regulations, Right-to-Know legislation, and the rooms and meals tax distribution along with possible local options. Of course, we don’t always agree — but that isn’t the point of the subcommittee. The goal is clarity and communication rather than accountability for particular votes.

City staff provide background information, describe current needs, and comment on the potential effects of legislation. The subcommittee frequently receives information from the public works director, city assessor, human resources, environmental planner, and planning department director. Members of the delegation know they can ask city staff for information that will add to their understanding of how bills affect residents and municipalities: What has been the effect on taxes of various types of downshifting? What do we collect in rooms and meals taxes? How much does the city receive from a raise in the gas tax? One of the city council subcommittee members serves on the NHMA Board, keeping the delegation informed about legislation of broad municipal interest and alerts our delegation to reasons why towns and cities might be concerned.

From the council’s perspective, one advantage of having a council subcommittee is the ability to act in a timely manner when hearings on bills are scheduled with little notice. Portsmouth councilors and city staff have become much more active in advocacy in Concord since we began the subcommittee. Councilors and city staff have become better informed about the legislative process and therefore more realistic in our expectations. Understanding legislators’ perspectives is helpful in providing explanations to the general public about where authority lies.

The regular meetings also provide an opportunity to members of the delegation to inform one another of what is occurring in their respective legislative bodies and offer a chance for all groups to strategize together. The subcommittee also has established a better working relationship with our legislators who, in return, help set realistic goals for the bills we should pursue for concerted advocacy.

M. Chris Dwyer serves as councilor in the City of Portsmouth and is a member of the NHMA board of directors.