Portsmouth's legal department involved in 30 cases, Dover only nine. Is there a reason? – Seacoastonline.com

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PORTSMOUTH — The city’s legal department is involved with about 30 “active litigation cases,” according to a list the department recently released after a vote by the City Council requesting it.
The list includes well-known cases that the city has been litigating for more than a decade, such as the long-running disputes between the city and Toyota of Portsmouth owner James Boyle.
Because of that dispute, the city is involved with multiple cases involving Boyle, according to the list.
Background:Portsmouth ordered to pay Toyota dealer $135K. Boyle sought $2.4 million.
It also includes the case brought by Deer Street Associates against the city, claiming the city’s refusal to approve a parking agreement has caused the company to suffer damages in excess of $4.25 million.
There are also a variety of lesser-known cases, including a trip and fall case at the main entrance to City Hall, tax abatements and an action seeking to recover firearms that were seized by Portsmouth police.
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The city has often been the target of legal actions — often in connection with decisions made by its land-use boards — but it also has brought lawsuits against residents.
In two cases this happened when homeowners allegedly conducted illegal work on their properties, according to the case list.
Longtime City Attorney Robert Sullivan declined to characterize the lawsuits when reached recently.
“One case is not the equal of another case. One could be basically nothing while another could be a huge deal,” Sullivan said.
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He also declined to comment on the number of lawsuits the city is involved in and what that means for Portsmouth moving forward.
He did say, “In general, I would think the fewer cases a municipality has the better off it is, particularly the fewer cases being brought against a municipality.
“Portsmouth is a different city than any other city in the Seacoast and those kind of comparisons have a surface appeal to them, but no real meaning,” Sullivan said when asked how he thought the number of cases the city is facing compares with other communities.
The number of cases Portsmouth is involved in is more than three times greater than the cases the city of Dover is dealing with, according to its City Attorney Joshua Wyatt.
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Wyatt said as of August, the city “had nine active cases, counting where we’re a plaintiff or defendant.”
He declined to comment on why he thinks Portsmouth has 30 cases and Dover has nine.
“It’s sometimes hard to compare communities because of different circumstances they’re going through,” he said during an interview Monday.
Wyatt’s department compiles a monthly list of active litigation cases that the city is involved in.
In August, that included the city’s involvement in “opioid epidemic litigation,” according to Wyatt’s report, where the city hired outside counsel to investigate “fraudulent marketing practices of pharmaceutical manufacturers.”
Like Portsmouth, Dover is also dealing with a lawsuit that was filed against the city because of a decision made by its Planning Board, according to Wyatt’s report.
He acknowledged that he “can’t think of a time that there’s ever been zero active lawsuits since I’ve been with the city.”
“Litigation is viewed somewhat as a stigma but it really is an extension of our dispute resolution system,” he said.
Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted said he thinks it’s important for the City Council to know what legal actions the city is facing.
“People think that because you’re on the City Council you’re always told everything about what’s being filed against the city, but that’s not always the case,” Becksted said during a recent interview.
The Portsmouth City Council voted at its Aug. 23 meeting to get the list of lawsuits from the city legal department after City Councilor Esther Kennedy made a motion asking for the list.
She made the motion after a group of residents filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that a Chase Drive property was illegally “spot zoned.”
Several city councilors said they had not heard about the lawsuit until they were asked about it by the Portsmouth Herald.
“I thought that was important because a neighborhood was alleging spot zoning,” Becksted said.
He noted, too, he had been sued a couple of times in his role as mayor over the city’s former mask mandate.
“Anybody can go and sue a municipality,” Becksted said.


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