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Man arrested during Alton select board meeting, again

  • Jeffrey Clay —Courtesy photo

Monitor staff
Published: 2/28/2017 11:08:59 PM

Once again, Jeffrey Clay found himself leaving a public meeting in handcuffs.

The Alton man was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of resisting arrest during a select board meeting Feb. 22, nearly two years after he was arrested on similar charges for criticizing the same select board.

In the most recent incident, Clay was speaking during the meeting’s first public comment section, where speakers are limited to three minutes and must restrict their comments to agenda items, according to the town’s website. Clay never got his three minutes, however, because his opening remarks – in which he called the select board “incompetent” and repulsive” – were deemed obstructive. Alton select board chair Cydney Johnson had warned Clay prior to his arrest that he had three chances before he would be asked to leave.

“I’m not going to listen to any warnings from you,” Clay replied. “I have my three minutes.”

Now, Clay’s attorney, Jared Bedrick, is saying they plan to fight the charges similar to the ones Clay faced two years ago. But there is one difference this time around that Bedrick views as important: the history between Clay and the town.

“The first time it seemed like an aberration; now it seems like a pattern,” he said.

Clay was arrested on Feb. 3, 2015, after telling board members they had violated the right-to-know law and should resign. The disorderly conduct charges stemming from that incident were later dismissed, and Clay sued the town for damages. He won – as he frequently pointed out during last week’s meeting – and the suit ended up costing the town more than $40,000 plus legal fees.

Not all of Clay’s court cases have been victories: The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the scoring sheets used to hire a superintendent are exempt from public disclosure last week. Clay filed the lawsuit in 2014 after arguing the information was within the public’s interest.

The select board’s policy on public comments during meetings allots speakers three minutes during the first public comment section to speak on an agenda item-related matter, a policy that Clay said did not exist before his arrest. The second public comment section is longer and allows people to speak on whatever issue they want.

Clay is adamant he was going to speak about an agenda item during his three minutes; specifically, how the town has been billing residents for ambulance services, an issue that he spoke on several times during a public hearing held on the subject earlier in the meeting. But even if he wasn’t going to speak on an item, his rights were still violated, he said.

“To think you have to point to a specific agenda item before speaking on anything else is ridiculous,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire thinks so, too, or at least they have in similar situations. Director Gilles Bissonnette said the ACLU was unprepared to comment on Clay’s recent arrest, but they represented Clay in the past, calling the arrest “impermissible censorship in violation of the First Amendment.”

The ACLU also condemned the Pembroke school board’s censorship of critical comments from the public last year after Pembroke Academy parent David Pearl tried to criticize how the administration handled an employee’s arrest. Pearl died of a heart attack in June.

The board’s policy now prohibits any comments that do not pertain to agenda items, a policy Bissonnette warned in a letter last year was still problematic.

“The Board cannot grant itself unfettered discretion to prohibit some non-agenda items from being discussed by members of the public, while allowing other non-agenda items to be discussed by members of the public,” Bissonnette wrote in his letter. “To do so would allow for arbitrary decision making by the Board that would effectively lead to impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”

Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath defended his officers’ actions, saying Clay got what he wanted because he refused to leave the meeting unless he was arrested. He said that, while he understands Clay’s right to freedom of speech, he said Clay makes a point of obstructing meetings. He noted Clay had been removed from the town’s deliberative session earlier that month for similar behavior but was not arrested.

Clay is scheduled to be arraigned on his charges May 4, Heath said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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