Gilmanton selectmen push out planning chair, accusing him of character assassination

GILMANTON — Selectmen have accused former Planning Board Chair W. John Funk of running smear campaign against the town's police sergeant and its planning administrator. The board apparently believes Funk besmirched the two when he contributed to a private e-mail chain that went viral.

The accusation, that was presented in a letter presented to the Planning Board and signed by all three selectmen on June 13, said they had lost confidence in Funk's ability to lead the Planning Board and called on him to resign as chairman. Instead, Funk quit the Planning Board.

"Because Mr. Funk continues to support the paragraph in the September 26, (2012) letter (to the operator of a rented commercial property) and the continued disrespect of our employees, we, the selectmen, have lost confidence in Mr. Funk's ability to be a reasonable leader of the Planning Board," they wrote.

The "paragraph" was one that was drafted by Planning Administrator Desiree Tumas, approved by former Chair Nancy Girard, and sent to the property owners in Florida on October 15, 2012 telling them the Planning Board had revoked contractor Ryan Benson's approval to operate a commercial business and had converted their property back to residential use. The letter said they could have his things removed from the property.

The owners had a local man clear the property and Benson reported to police that his items were stolen. Sgt. Matt Currier investigated, Girard and Funk were distressed by the questions and methods he used to pursue the case, and ultimately the police chief and the selectmen got involved.

Girard was not reappointed to the board in March, although she and Funk stand behind the state law they used to justify telling the property owners they could have Benson's belongings removed from their property.

Both Funk and Girard are lawyers, however they were not the Planning Board's lawyer.

Police reached out to Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbransen who said she would be unable to successfully prosecute any theft (by the man who took the Benson's property) because of the letter from the Planning Board that seemingly negates intent on the part of the man who took Benson's items. Gulbrandsen also wrote she didn't think the man had the right to take Benson's belongings.

Funk said yesterday a letter from Town Attorney Walter Mitchell to selectmen said pretty much the same thing. He said Mitchell's opinion was presented as an attachment to the letter from selectmen to the Planning Board in a public session on June 13 — the night Funk resigned.

When challenged by Selectman Chair Ralph Lavin, who was the Selectboard representative to the Planning Board the night Funk resigned and who made the motion to remove him as chair, Funk said yesterday he told Lavin that "lawyers disagree" but it's not the lawyers who make the decisions as to who's right and who's wrong.

The problem, said Chief Joe Collins, is the landowners never officially evicted Benson through a court of law and instead used the letter from the Planning Department as the reason for having someone remove Benson's property from the site.

Funk said yesterday he still stands by the letter. He cited RSA 540-A:3, VII that states a landowner can dispose of property from non-residential property after seven days once a tenant has vacated, either by eviction or voluntarily, as the reason for his support of "the paragraph." He also said had nothing to do with its drafting or approval.

He said he only jumped into an e-mail chain circulating through the town's electronic rumor mill when he became concerned about what he perceived as misrepresentations by contributors to the chain regarding the Benson property, the police, the selectmen, and the Planning Board.

"I only wanted for people to understand why the letter (to the property owners) was written," he said. He also said he wanted to support the integrity of the Planning Board. The e-mail chain was cited by Lavin as one of the reasons selectmen lost confidence in him.

When asked yesterday why he didn't stay on the board as a regular voting member, Funk said he felt that if a majority of the board didn't have faith in his ability to lead then he didn't want to continue to serve in any capacity.

Funk also noted that Lavin and Planning Board member Wayne Ogni were members of the board when the problems with Benson became known and didn't object at the time when the board decided to convert the property back to residential use. Ogni seconded Lavin's motion to remove Funk as chair.

He also said yesterday he sent a letter of apology to Sgt. Currier before the June 13 Planning Board meeting.

Funk had been on the Planning Board for 15 years. He said yesterday that at this point in time, he would be unlikely to serve again if asked.