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Gilmanton couple demands apology over select board chairman’s ‘crayon-eater’ comment

  • Nick Stoico—Monitor staff

  • Nick Stoico—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, September 15, 2018

A husband and wife in Gilmanton are demanding an apology from the town’s select board chairman after they say he referred to students with special needs as “crayon-eaters.”

Ron O’Connor, who has a 19-year-old step-daughter on an individualized education plan, says the chairman, Stephen McWhinnie, used the phrase while they were discussing town matters on a phone call in June.

Lynn O’Connor, Ron’s wife, spoke up at an Aug. 27 select board meeting asking the board to respond to a letter she sent June 25, a day after the phone conversation occurred. Ron also spoke at the meeting about his concern over the terminology.

McWhinnie did not directly respond to either of their comments at the meeting, and when fellow selectman Michael Wilson asked after the meeting if McWhinnie was going to apologize, McWhinnie said no.

Immediately following the exchange, Gilmanton Assistant Town Administrator Heather Carpenter said McWhinnie was not acting as a town official when the statement was made.

“He was not acting as a board member,” she said. “If it was at this meeting and he made a statement like that, totally different ballgame. That you can do something about. Personal conversation, regardless of being a selectman or not, he’s not acting as a selectman.”

McWhinnie did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Ron O’Connor says McWhinnie contacted him in June after Ron wrote some comments on a Gilmanton community Facebook page about a busy intersection in town and a buzz-in security system installed at the town offices.

McWhinnie sent a text message to Ron about his concerns and then asked him to call and speak on the phone. Ron says they continued to speak about the security system and the intersection of routes 107 and 140 – known in town as the “four corners” – before the conversation pivoted to school topics, specifically transporting children with special needs to out of town schools for various programs.

McWhinnie, who serves on the Gilmanton School Board’s High School Options Committee, said “We are 100 percent behind getting students where they need to go. I mean, we aren’t going to transport a crayon-eater to Manchester, but we will get someone with a chance at advancing their education the transportation they need,” according to a letter from Ron O’Connor.

Lynn O’Connor overheard the comment, called McWhinnie back and an argument followed. McWhinnie sent Ron a text message afterwards saying, “Can you apologize to Lynn for me. Apparently, she didn’t hear what I said prior to that.”

McWhinnie later wrote in a text, “I was offended. I moved forward after she hung up.”

After Lynn O’Connor sent her first letter to the town following the phone call, former town administrator Heidi Duval, who left the post on July 6, emailed back on June 29, writing, “It is my understanding that Mr. O’Connor’s conversation with Mr. McWhinnie was of a personal nature (not Select Board business), which means this would not be an item for the Selectmen to address. They have, however, received your letter and you could choose to speak during public input at a future meeting, however the board would not be able to respond or address.”

Lynn O’Connor argued that the phone call was not merely a private conversation unrelated to town business.

“When a citizen of the town begins discussing town issues with a selectman it’s because he has concerns and wants to bring it to the elected official’s attention,” Lynn wrote. “You are not merely having a conversation with your next door neighbor at the mailbox. Big difference.”

The communication continued in July with Carpenter after Duval left the job. On July 16, four emails went back and forth between them debating whether the conversation was related to town business.

“Town officials can only act in their official capacity as a board,” Carpenter wrote. “I do understand that people can use insensitive terminology that can cause offense and if it happened in a board meeting the Board would be able to address it. This office is not interested in covering up matters but can only address what is ours to address in an appropriate manner.”

The O’Connors recognize that McWhinnie did not violate any rules with what he said, but Ron and Lynn are both calling for an ethics committee to be formed in the town. Both say a formal apology is overdue, but Ron said he hopes town leaders are respectful of people with physical or learning disabilities.

“They don’t want your sympathy,” Ron said. “They just want your acceptance.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321 or nstocmonitor.com.)