In Chichester, a selectman’s refusal to wear a mask spurs debate over what is ‘right’ 

  • Tom Houle, seen here in March 2020, said he was a friend of Jason Weir’s, but disagreed with him over mask-wearing. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester town hall. fire and police department. Maddie Vanderpool

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/22/2021 3:56:25 PM

At a Chichester Select Board meeting last week, longtime resident Tom Houle sought to tear down a former ally’s soapbox.

Via Zoom, Houle, in an understated yet pointed manner, told Selectmen Jason Weir that his refusal to wear a mask at the Select Board meeting on April 6, which forced a week’s postponement, was selfish.

Further, Houle and others said, Weir had agreed to abide by the town’s rules – masks at meetings – at a previous select board meeting, on March 23.

“You guys had voted on the meeting, to make it public,” Houle said during the April 13 meeting. “Everyone shows up for the (April 6) meeting and you say you don’t want to wear a mask. Your job here for the town is to work for the town, and to wear a mask for an hour or two isn’t an awful lot to ask.”

Countered Weir, “There is a lot more to it than that.”

It’s a year-old issue that has taken on renewed prominence – one that forces us to sort through feelings on civil rights, doing the right thing to keep fellow citizens safe and the role of government in everyday life. The overwhelming majority of people we see in grocery stores and elsewhere wear masks. Republicans and Democrats both.

Those who choose not to wear masks stick out, even though Gov. Chris Sununu recently withdrew his mask mandate, leaving it up to towns, schools and businesses to choose: Mask optional or mandatory?

“It is important to note that this mandate going away will not limit or prevent the ability of private businesses and local cities and towns from requiring masks,” Sununu said.

Chichester’s town leaders still want them worn. Weir’s heels, however, are dug deeply. Even though he refused to wear a mask before the governor lifted the state mandate, Weir later explained that he was basing his stance on principle, leery of government overreach and saying that his behavior falls within the boundaries set forth by the state even when the mask order was in effect.

The January order required anyone over five years old to wear a mask when “they are in public spaces, indoors or outdoors, where they are unable to or do not consistently maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from persons outside their own households.”

Given that language, Weir said he was within his rights to not wear a mask.

“My opinion,” Weir said, “is that I’m following the governor’s mandate, and if you read the mandate, as long as we are able to safely social distance and keep our six-foot distance, the mask requirements are not there, and I’m going to stick to that.”

He was unavailable for comment this week, but Weir succinctly answered his critics at the meeting.

Weir is known around town. Among other things, he started his own Facebook page called “Communist Free Chichester” and is praised on it as a towering figure for standing up to the Select Board.

At the April 13 meeting, before Houle had his say and longtime resident Bette Bogdan had her say and Town Administrator Jodi Pinard had her say, Select Board Chair Richard Bouchard addressed a complaint concerning Weir, totally separate from Mask-Gate.

Sources had told Bouchard to inquire about Weir’s residence. They wondered if he’d moved to Loudon, which, if true, would have forced him to yield his seat on the board and made many in town happy.

In an uncomfortable moment, Bouchard said, “I don’t know how to address it, (so I’ll) just ask the question that it was brought to my attention, you have moved out of town.”

“Because of my current situation with my children,” Weir responded, “I’ve got to maintain a residency in Chichester.”

No one pressed Weir for more information.

Bouchard, reached by phone a few days after the April 13 meeting, said a plan had been agreed upon back in March, that town meetings in town hall would return, and masks would be required.

CDC and state guidelines would be followed. Social distancing, masks, the works. Remote access was an option. Weir was there and reportedly went along with it.

Then on April 6, Weir had a change of heart, as Houle described it, and decided to push the issue.

“Mr. Weir stated that he had not had a chance to read the governor’s order when he said he would,” according to the written minutes from the April 6 meeting, “and he had the right to change his mind.”

Weir said he had a right to be at the meeting as well, mask or no mask. He said only an arrest could keep him out. That put Chichester Police Chief Pat Clarke in the uncomfortable spot of potentially having to escort one of his three bosses from the hall.

Clarke said that if it had come down to it, he would have called the State Police to remove Weir, and if he had refused he could then have been charged with criminal trespassing.

“Awkward,” was how the chief summed it up.

Weir’s defiance on April 6, when a non-public session was scheduled, forced an early adjournment.

“When (Weir) walked in (on April 6), he did not have a mask on,” Bouchard said. “I said do you have a mask and he said, ‘Nope, and I’m not wearing them.’ I told him masks are required or we have to stop.”

They stopped. The nonpublic session was halted after just 38 minutes. The meeting itself, upstairs in the Grange Hall, was moved to the following Tuesday, April 13.

That’s when the heat came. Heat from residents who had tuned in or showed up for the never-held initial meeting, after they cleared schedules and made time for it. Heat from residents who wanted to talk about liens and saving their homes.

Heat from people like Houle, who, ironically, once supported Weir and his beliefs when Weir ran for the board.

“I liked how he dealt with budget issues,” Houle said by phone. “I thought he did a good job on saying that we were taxing ourselves out of a situation in town, and I was hoping he would continue that. He dropped the ball on everything.”

Both Houle and Weir grew up in town. Weir’s grandparents drove the school bus when Houle was in school.

“I went to Chichester Central,” Houle said. “That is what is hard. I know his whole family.”

Last week, Houle sat in his motorcycle repair shop on Zoom, sporting a Santa-like beard, wire-rimmed glasses and bandana, a mellow-looking Dead Head who never raised his voice while discussing Weir. But Houle knew what he wanted to tell him.

“You think it was worth wasting the town people’s time for wearing a mask for that amount of time?” Houle asked Weir. “Really?”

Bogdan, a long time nurse, tuned in to the meeting remotely. She also spoke in a calm voice, and carried a message similar to Houle’s.

“From a public health standpoint, we are all trying to protect one another,” Bogdan said on the video. “I’m just a little disappointed, Jason. It just showed a little disrespect to me as a person and a citizen.”

“There was certainly no disrespect intended,” Weir responded. “This was more of a standing up for something you believe in.”

Obviously, the issues surrounding the wearing of masks and what it symbolizes remain strong. After more than a year.

Chichester already displayed caution by postponing the town and school meetings and its Election Day to next month.

Officials noted that something needs to be done before then. But demanding that masks are worn could spell more trouble. Weir doesn’t sound like he’s backing down. Meanwhile, Bouchard noted that a solution is sorely needed simply because Weir, as a selectman, needs to be at the Town Meeting.

In person.

“I’m still going to go with what I think is right,” Weir said.

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