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Tough Times for Tough Portsmouth Mayors


With another exciting election looming, I thought it was a simple question. When, I asked a few knowledgeable Portsmouth people, did we start letting the city councilor with the most votes become mayor? "I do not know," one former Portsmouth mayor posted on my Facebook page, "but I certainly would support changing it."  (Click title to read full article) 


Three ex-mayors and a bunch of lawyers later, I still had no answer. My usual sources all shrugged. We know that Portsmouth graduated from a town to a city in 1849 and Abner Greenleaf became its first mayor the following year. Born in Newburyport in 1785, not long after the American Revolution, Greenleaf was a tough newspaper editor and senator whose portrait hangs in the New Hampshire statehouse.  A Unitarian and a reformer, Greenleaf initiated the Portsmouth Police Department with a city marshal who was paid $200 per year and 22 "watchmen" at $50 per annum. Crime was everywhere. The city was growing up.

Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn SirrellBack then the mayor was a powerful guy. According to the 1874 Portsmouth ordinance that I found on Google, the mayor not only had the power of the purse, but he could veto any action by the board of aldermen, the original city councilors. Corruption, ballot-box stuffing, graft, and political intrigue reigned as one powerful and wealthy man after another took control.   

That changed in 1947 when, like many cities, Portsmouth adopted a city management form of government. Hired, not elected, the city manager works at the pleasure of city council. But as "chief executive" he generally rules the roost -- managing all departments, overseeing the budget, and keeping an eye on everything the city owns. 

The mayors we got in return, at least from my experience, have been gentler, more accessible, hard-working, volunteer mayors. They have less clout and their  election depends upon being the top vote-getter in a political popularity contest. As a former high school student council president, I can identify. And as a longtime local historian, I've found it easy to sit down and chat with pretty much every mayor since I arrived in town. We know where our mayors live. We have their number. 

One personal anecdote stands out. My politics did not always jive with the late Mayor Evelyn Sirrell (1998-2005). But we often had a friendly debate while she worked as a parking lot guard at the local bank. Once I complained that I could not find any affordable office space downtown to do my writing. No problem, the mayor said. I could use her office at city hall in the mornings, as long as I vacated the desk when she needed it. That's what I call small town government.   

By my count, 63 individuals have served this office so far. Initially it was a one-year term, today it is two. But when I searched the Portsmouth Athenaeum database for pictures of past mayors, only five came up. We can see their somber portraits hanging at City Hall, but who were they? A few loom large including brewer and business giant Frank Jones (1868-69) or Portsmouth Herald founder Fernando W. Hartford (1921-22, 1928-32) . We know that the legendary Eileen Foley (1968-71, 1988-97) cut the ribbon that opened the first Memorial Bridge at age five and cut the ribbon that opened the new Memorial Bridge this year at age 95.

Our mayors have been a diverse group. You may recall that Arthur F. Brady, Jr. (1972-73) owned a car dealership. But who remembers that Sylvester F.A. Pickering (1933) was a dentist. Weighing over 280 pounds and standing more than six feet, Dr. Pickering pulled many a tooth for 50 cents, but not without a lot of pain. Robert Morrison (1857) by comparison was a wiry little schoolteacher, but he could still thrash the biggest bully in the classroom or shut down the rowdy South End bars when the need arose.



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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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