Oct. 8 — To the Editor:
I see that Councilors McEachern and Splaine want to mandate that the taxpayers pay up to $150,000 taxpayer dollars for some form of artwork outside the new sewer treatment plant on Peirce Island pursuant to the “Percent for Art” ordinance. In a time when we are facing our largest crisis in the last century, these gentlemen want to spend tax dollars on artwork at a plant that treats our excrement. The plant is not even a public place and is fenced off for obvious reasons.
It is clear that the Councilors have taken sides in the culture war, departing from their role of assuring, as neutral observers, that the democratic rules of carrying out their office for the benefit of the city are observed. Many taxpayers do not want expensive artwork outside a non-public sewer treatment plant far out on an island. I would hope most taxpayers view the exemption of the art requirement as protecting themselves and their families from irresponsible spending and something that, at this particular time in history, makes no responsible fiscal sense. The Councilors likely view the exemption as “discrimination against the Arts”. So imbued are Councilors McEachern and Splaine with the need to carry out the late Paul McEachern’s wish for “public art”, that they are seemingly unaware that the attitudes of those taxpayers who support this are not obviously “mainstream”; that in this instance the public would not benefit one single bit.
Let me be clear, I have nothing against public art patrons, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means. Social and fiscal perceptions of whether or not we need this particular piece of expensive art and other such preferences change over time, and every group has the right to persuade its fellow citizens that its view of such matters is the best.
That the art patrons such as the late, great Paul McEachern were able to achieve some success in that enterprise is attested to by the fact that Portsmouth even has the “Percent for Art” ordinance. I would not support repealing this ordinance, but rather I support the exemption of it in this instance. The Councilors’ assertions that in this case an art object is necessary at a cost of up to $150,000 of taxpayer money during the Covid crisis are unreasonable and quite ridiculous.
What Councilors McEachern and Splaine suggest to do is well within the range of traditional democratic action, but it is totally misplaced and fiscally irresponsible at this time. It is indeed true that later generations can see that ordinances once thought necessary and proper in fact no longer serve a reasonable purpose and when that happens, later City Councils can repeal those ordinances.
But it is also the premise of our system that those decisions are to be made by the people by referendum, and not imposed by a governing caste, like the City Council, that knows best.
One of the benefits of leaving this kind of decision to the people rather than to the City Council is that the people, unlike politicians, need not carry things to their logical conclusion. The people may feel that their disapprobation of expensive taxpayer funded art is not what they want. The City Council pretends that it possesses a similar freedom of action, so that that we need not fear municipal imposition of needless spending of what would be tantamount to a stone or bronze toilet or a sculpture of one, such as on Gulou South, a bustling street in Linfen, north China’s Shanxi Province, where there is an outside public toilet with a sculpture in front of an oversize marble toilet. This suggestion to impose this art spending at the sewer plant by Councilors McEachern and Splaine dismantles the structure of fiscal responsibility and fiduciary responsibility that we entrusted them both with when we voted for them.
This case involves a serious need to channel funds to vital systems and complete a mission critical project for this city. I certainly hope our City Council votes to exempt this art requirement in this specific instance.
T. Stephen McCarthy