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Webster couple to receive first amendment award

  • Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson Geoff Forester—Monitor staff

  • Couple Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson will receive the 2021 First Amendment Award from the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications for their successful efforts to expose an illegal land sale in Webster. Tara is holding all the documents she has been accumalating against the town over the sale. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Couple Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson will receive the 2021 First Amendment Award from the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications for their successful efforts to expose an illegal land sale in Webster. Tara is holding all the documents she has been accumalating against the town over the sale. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/25/2021 4:57:35 PM

Couple Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson will receive the 2021 First Amendment Award from the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications for their successful efforts to expose an illegal land sale in Webster. 

The award goes to a person or group in New Hampshire who has exercised or protected the rights enshrined under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in an extraordinary way. Gunnigle and Pearson will be honored at the 19th annual ceremony on Nov. 9, which will feature speaker U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. 

Gunnigle, a postal worker, and Pearson, a farmer, are being recognized for their use of public records laws to reveal a land deal approved by the Webster Select Board in violation of state law and the town’s policies.

In 2019, town treasurer Bruce Johnson purchased two 1½-acre lots of land on Walker Pond Road, across from his home. The select board approved the sale in a non-public session, then sealed the minutes. One of the former members of the three-person board, Christine Schadler, owned a nearby lot together with Johnson’s wife Katherine.

In fall 2020, Gunnigle and Pearson became aware of the transaction and demanded that the sealed minutes be released. They learned that a town policy governing the sale of town properties had been violated, and requested documents including the deed, bill of sale, conservation commission maps under New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law.

“We just need dirty politics out of our small town,” Gunnigle wrote in a complaint to the Merrimack County Attorney.

In August, Johnson pleaded no contest and was fined $1,200 for buying town property while serving as a public official by a process “other than by competitive bidding,” a Class B misdemeanor under state law. He then resigned from his position as treasurer.

Selectman David Hemenway announced on Oct. 11 that the select board had voted not to pursue a lawsuit to recover the land, and had instead received a permanent conservation easement on the Walker Pond property.

On Oct. 18, Gunnigle, Pearson and a few other Webster residents expressed their disagreement with the select board’s decision in a meeting that lasted more than three hours and involved back-and-forth on the requirements of town policy and details of the 2019 deed.

“We need to involve the people of the town who didn’t know about this,” Gunnigle said in the meeting. “If you have no facts, you have no truth, and then you have no trust. This case has been a blatant cover-up from the beginning, and a half-truth now.”


Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.



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