Portsmouth, New Hampshire, City Manager John Bohenko, seen here in a Seacoast Online file photo, said Wednesday that two non-resident members of the city's Planning Board, including a Kittery resident, will be removed from the panel. Credit: Deb Cram | Seacoast Online

PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — City Manager John Bohenko confirmed Wednesday that two non-resident city staffers will no longer serve as voting members of the Planning Board.

In addition, Bohenko in September will take over on the Planning Board for Deputy City Manager Nancy Colbert Puff, who lives in Kittery, Maine, and appoint a “new administrative official to replace the Assistant City Manager” (David Moore).

Moore also lives outside the city.

Bohenko issued a short statement Wednesday about the changes after his decision to appoint Colbert Puff and Moore to serve as voting members of the city’s land-use boards became embroiled in controversy.

“In light of the recently raised issue concerning city staff’s service as ex-officio members of the Planning Board, I have decided to resume my position on the board beginning in September,” Bohenko said in the statement. “I hold the highest regard for our land-use boards, and do not want their hard work to be made more difficult by this ongoing distraction. In addition, I believe it is unfair to both applicants and staff to allow this issue to remain part of an active debate.”

Bohenko’s decision came at a critical time for the board, which is scheduled to decide Thursday night whether to grant the Portsmouth Housing Authority site-plan approval for its 4-story, 64-unit workforce housing development on Court Street.

Resident Mark Brighton, president of the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers, first raised the issue publicly saying Colbert Puff and Moore should not be allowed to serve because they don’t live in the city. He has stated he plans to appeal the decision by the board to grant the PHA a conditional use permit at its July meeting because he believes the city violated state law by allowing the two to serve as voting members of the board.

Neither Moore nor Colbert Puff could immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Reached Wednesday, Brighton said “my immediate reaction is that I’m glad to see he’s come to his senses,” he said of Bohenko.

“That still doesn’t prevent me from moving forward on the Portsmouth Housing Authority appeal, which I’m planning on doing,” Brighton said. “There’s a price to be paid for not conforming to the RSAs.”

City Councilor Rick Becksted was the lone city councilor to speak out against allowing the two high-ranking city employees to serve on the board, saying the council should not allow non-residents to serve.

City Attorney Robert Sullivan issued an opinion about two weeks ago backing Bohenko’s decision to put the non residents on the board. But Secretary of State William Gardner issued an opinion this week stating non-residents should not serve on the Planning Board.

“Planning board decisions that will affect the lives and property of residents of the city must be made by people chosen from among the residents of that city, who share common concerns and interests as well as sharing in the benefits and burdens,” Gardner stated. “In other words, those making decisions should have skin in the game.”

Mayor Jack Blalock previously said he supported Bohenko’s decision and Sullivan’s memo, and City Councilor Rebecca Perkins Kwoka said she trusted Sullivan’s advice.

Brighton believes all of the Planning Board’s decisions that included votes by Moore and Colbert Puff could be legally challenged.

“The Planning Board itself right now is a tainted jury in terms of the Portsmouth Housing Authority because they’ve been exposed to the opinions of David Moore and Colbert Puff,” Brighton said. “They’re not in compliance. You can’t just wish it away.”

He credited Becksted with having “the courage to stand up and say something” about the non-residents serving on the Planning Board.

Sections of the state statutes and city ordinances say Planning Board residents must be city residents to serve.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Bohenko declined to comment further on the matter. “My memo speaks for itself,” he said.

Becksted called Bohenko’s decision “a step in the right direction.”

“It doesn’t completely fulfill the RSAs and I hope to have that discussion Monday night, which I told the mayor about,” Becksted said Wednesday.

He believes the City Council representative on the Planning Board, Perkins Kwoka, could also be considered an ex-officio member, and the state statutes only allow for two.

“I’m hoping to have that discussion,” Becksted said.

He believes it’s important for city councilors to do their own research on an issue and not always rely on “someone else telling them it’s OK or it’s not OK.”

“I always rely on what my findings are not necessarily what I’m told,” he added.

PHA Executive Director Craig Welch said Wednesday he believes the controversy “will not be an issue” concerning the PHA’s push to get the final approval it needs for the project from city land-use boards.

“I haven’t spoken with city management or anything to learn how they’re responding, but we’re proceeding as planned,” Welch said Wednesday before Bohenko announced his decision to remove Colbert Puff and Moore.

Asked if he’s concerned that if the PHA receives the site plan approval on Thursday it could be challenged in court due to the non-resident members, Welch said, “I think that would be tragic and certainly unnecessary, but we’ve consulted with that with our land-use attorney on whether or not that issue would threaten any approvals and I was satisfied it won’t.”

He stressed that throughout the project’s review by the city’s land-use boards “we’ve received an overwhelming amount of support and encouragement from all throughout the city and state.”

The project also responds to a desperate need for more affordable housing in Portsmouth as housing costs continue to rise, Welch said.

“I think as a resident of Portsmouth I think that’s really important to the character of our community that people in mission-driven jobs or people who are just starting out or have young families have an opportunity to live in some permanently affordable housing,” he said.

Former Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine, who supports the PHA’s project, said any decision Moore and Colbert Puff made with the board could potentially be challenged in court.

“This shows what can happen because we are in a sense violating state law,” Splaine said. “Other challenges can be made too because of both the arrogance and ignorance of powers that be in the city, meaning the city manager and city attorney.”

“The City Council has an obligation to stand up and be counted,” he added.

He believes once elected, “too many city councilors think … they become public relations advocates for the city management. That’s not their job.”

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