Webster citizens exposed town treasurer’s illegal land purchase

  • The entrance of Walker Pond Road in Webster where town treasurer Bruce Johnson bought land across from his residence. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 9/2/2021 4:47:50 PM

Webster residents fighting for local government transparency exposed the illegal sale of town land to former town treasurer Bruce Johnson, according to meeting minutes and other public documents.

Johnson resigned this week after he 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. In 2019, he purchased the two 1½-acre lots, which sit across the street from his waterfront home at 140 Walker Pond Road, while holding a position as Webster’s treasurer.

A year ago, Johnson mentioned in a September 2020 meeting that he was the owner of the Walker Pond land. This was news to Webster resident Tara Gunnigle, who started asking questions that ultimately led to his resignation this week.

Gunnigle works for the U.S. Postal Service and owns a small horse farm with her husband Jon Pearson, another loud voice for transparency at Webster meetings.

At board meetings last fall, she began pushing the board for more information about the sale. She requested that the Select Board unseal the minutes of the 2019 meeting when the transaction was approved, which the board agreed to do, and filed requests for information under New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law for town records related to the sale and the land.

The Select Board approved the sale of the town land at a meeting on Sept. 23, 2019, the minutes of which were sealed. The board agreed to accept Johnson’s offer of $7,000 for the two lots “with the condition that future building on the lots is prohibited,” according to meeting minutes.

A report from the Planning Board and Conservation Commission had recommended in 2017 that the Walker Pond Road site be left undeveloped, noting the area’s “highest value for wildlife.” Notes from that review show the two parcels color-coded as green on a map, which signified “do not sell; leave as open space.”

Former Selectwoman Christine Schadler said that the board unanimously approved the sale, which meeting minutes also show. However, the warranty deed signed Oct. 7, 2019, is missing the signature of one former selectwoman, Bianca Acebron Peco.

At the time, Acebron Peco was a few months into her first and only term on Select Board, the first all-woman board in town history. She said she didn’t sign the warranty deed because something felt off at the time.

“I can’t recall exactly but I do remember it was just something that didn’t feel right to me,” Acebron Peco said. “I was the newest board member so I didn’t know all the rules all the time.”

Schadler, who was also on the Conservation Commission at the time and is currently the commission’s chairwoman, said selling the land to Johnson was in the town’s best interest, preserving the land while boosting revenue. She owns a camp with Johnson’s wife, Katherine, down the road from the Walker Pond lots.

“It would accomplish exactly what we would want to accomplish,” she said. “Bruce was willing to pay the back taxes and any associated fees, and it wouldn’t cost the town any money, and then the land would become a taxable lot so the town would continue to earn money on it.”

Schadler said it was common practice for the board to seal the minutes of meetings that involved financial matters, and that she was not aware that the sale violated state law at the time.

Johnson wrote a letter to the select board on November 15, 2020, offering to sell the property back, but did not admit wrongdoing.

“To be clear, as I see it, the Select Board did not make missteps selling the property in non-public sessions, and I did not use my treasurer position for advantage here,” Johnson said in the letter.

“Still, there are questions, and my wife and I would like to offer possible moves to correct this. We are willing to sell the property back to the Town for the $7,000 paid for the property, plus the $675 paid in taxes for the first year with no additional taxes accrued,” he said.

Johnson did not respond to multiple requests from the Monitor for comment.

The town turned down that offer. “The Board was hesitant to spend taxpayer money in re-acquiring the property and would not pursue the offer at this time,” according to minutes from Nov. 16, 2020.

“We decided no, we knew there would be a price to pay, we knew Bruce was going to pay some other kind of price for having made an error like he did, but in fact the land is where the town wanted it to be, which is conserved, and its earning taxes for the town,” said Schadler, who was select board chairwoman in fall 2020. “That decision not to buy it back was not based on anything other than the Planning Board and Conservation Commission wanting it to be conserved.”

According to tax records, the combined taxable value for the two Walker Pond plots was $44,800 in 2019.

In January, Gunnigle submitted a complaint to the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office in which she wrote that the sale had violated town policies governing the sale of properties and fraud as well as state law. She also challenged the low sale price.

“Is this to the benefit of the taxpayers?” Gunnigle wrote. “We just need dirty politics out of our small town.”

Selectman Chairman David Hemenway wrote in an email that the town’s deputy treasurer would take over Johnson’s duties temporarily.

“Regarding the land, the select board has not previously made any decision on the matter, other than to wait for the result of the reported trial, and should be expected to discuss the options at the next meeting and with legal coun(sel), before making any public statement on the matter,” Hemenway said.

The next Select Board meeting will be Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Webster Town Hall.

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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