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Webster document shredding didn’t break law, county attorney says

Members of the now-inactive Webster Police Advisory Committee did not violate state law when they shredded documents during a public meeting in January, the Merrimack County attorney’s office has found.

The investigation launched earlier this year and focused on a Jan. 3 meeting of the volunteer committee. During that meeting, members shredded a batch of anonymous documents, citing an unwritten town policy to not accept anonymous letters. The investigation looked at whether the shredding violated a state statute related to tampering with public records, which states a person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she “purposefully or unlawfully destroys, conceals, removes or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of” information required by law to be kept as a government record.

“We did review it and we returned the whole package to Webster police. We didn’t determine there was criminal liability anywhere,” said Assistant County Attorney George Stewart.

“I think the short of it was the people involved were advised that there was a policy to shred anonymous letters,” added Stewart, who reviewed the case and informed the Webster police of the findings. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, the Webster police conducted the investigation and then handed all materials over to the county attorney’s office for review. Four of five advisory committee members resigned after the police started investigating, and all 2014 meetings have since been canceled. The future of the committee is still unclear.

In the wake of the investigation, selectmen have drafted a formal document management policy for boards and committees that outlines how to handle anonymous letters. A draft policy has been reviewed by town counsel and will be discussed Monday, but it was not available this week.

“The Board plans to vote on adopting this policy at Monday’s meeting. It will be available after that,” Webster Selectman Bruce Johnson said in an email.

“The original purpose of this policy was to address anonymous documents, and then the board decided to expand it to include all documents,” he said. “The expectation is that this will help address all future correspondence.”

The committee was created last year to serve as a liaison between community members and the police department in Webster, where talk of trimming the police budget accompanies town meeting every year. The documents in question arrived through the mail at town hall in December. The anonymous documents included personnel reports from the police department and court documents from one civil case and one criminal case involving Webster residents. All of the documents were at least three years old, Webster police Chief Robert Dupuis said.

The findings did not surprise him, he said.

“My belief was that all of these documents could be reproduced if need be,” he said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @iainwilsoncm.)

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