GILMANTON — Members of the town's Planning Board were not officially informed the Selectboard intended to ask their chairman, John Funk, to step down until moments before it happened on June 13. An item had been placed on the agenda referring to a "letter from the selectmen" but no details were provided when the customary pre-meeting packet was e-mailed to board members on June 10, nor when they sat down to do business three days later.
Planning Administrator Desiree Tumas told The Daily Sun that copies of the letter requesting Funk's resignation were not included in the pre-meeting packet she sent out because she was told by new Town Administrator Arthur Capello to keep them to herself until the board reached the pertinent item on the agenda on the 13th.
Capello, who had only been on the job for a couple of weeks at the time, told The Daily Sun the letter wasn't distributed beforehand because "if something is controversial it's passed out the night of the meeting."
Funk reacted to the request by polling the members of the board for their opinion on the matter and when a 4-2 majority, including Selectboard Chairman Ralph Lavin, agreed they wanted him to relinquish the gavel because of they way he had reacted to the Police Department's investigation of a property dispute, he resigned from the board itself. No vote was actually taken.
Board member Laurie Sanborn did not attend the meeting and was replaced for the evening by alternate member Kevin Farquharson. Sanborn told The Daily Sun she had a family commitment to keep that night but she would have attended had she known what the selectmen were up to.
Farquharson was one the four people who supported Frunk's removal. The others were Lavin, Wayne Ogni and Roy Buttrick. Marty Martindale and John Weston wanted Funk to remain as chair.
For his part, Selectman Brett Currier told The Daily Sun it should not have come as any surprise that he wanted Funk and some other veteran members off the Planning Board because he said as much when he successfully ran for office in 2012.
Funk said he actually learned of the effort to remove him in a phone call from the third selectman, Don Guarino, that was placed about an hour before the June 13 meeting began. Guarino is the Selectboard's normal representative on the Planning Board but, according to Funk, he revealed that Lavin would be taking his place that night and the letter mentioned on the agenda called for his resignation as chairman.
Guarino, on the other hand, told The Daily Sun he "didn't think it (the Selectboard's letter) was going to be a subject at the (June 13) meeting." And, he said he did not know Lavin was going to make a motion to remove Funk a chairman.
Guarino also disclosed that the letter in question derived from a nonpublic Selectboard meeting a month earlier and he was charged with bringing it with him to the Planning Board's May meeting. But after a discussion centered around Funk's alleged maligning of the reputation of the Police Department, he decided the matter had been thoroughly vetted and that was enough.
Guarino kept the letter in his pocket that night and only distributed a couple of related legal opinions— one from Town Attorney Walter Mitchell and one from County Attorney Melissa Gulbrandsen — that agreed that the Planning Board had exceeded its authority by including a property rights paragraph that rests at the heart of the police investigation controversy in a letter it sent to construction contractor Ryan Benson back in September 2012.
He also distributed a letter Police Chief Joe Collins sent to the Selectboard in April in which the chief voiced his strong opinion that, "Mr. Funk clearly cannot continue as chairman of the Planning Board."
When the two other selectmen, Lavin and Currier, learned that Guarino had not presented the letter asking for Funk's resignation at the May Planning Board meeting, they pressed forward.
The controversial Planning Board letter — drafted by Tumas and approved by then Chairman Nancy Girard — informed Benson he no longer had a town permit to run a commercial enterprise on a residential lot he had been renting. Further, the offending paragraph stated that if he did not remove his personal property from the lot within a coupe of weeks, ownership of that property would pass to his landlord.
Sometime after the first of the year, the land owner used a copy of the letter to Benson as justification for having the contractor's property removed by a third party. Police got involved because Benson then reported that his belongings had been stolen.
The theft was investigated as a criminal matter by Sgt. Matt Currier, who, until he began looking into the matter, had no idea what was happening between, Benson, his landlord and the Planning Department.
The police investigation, with advice from Mitchell and Gulbrandsen, concluded the Planning Board had overstepped its bounds by inserting itself into the personal property ownership arena. And then Chief Collins became agitated when Funk came to the defense of the appropriateness of the letter to Benson through a series of e-mails that apparently enjoyed wide circulation.
Ironically, Funk had nothing to do with the original drafting of the letter, but said he was just defending the reputation of his board.
Chief Collin's April letter to selectmen stated, "He (Funk) continues disparage the Police Department and belittle the officers of the department, including the chief. I do not believe he will treat citizens fairly because once he sets his opine on issues he won't listen to reason. . . "
The chief further stated his opinion that Funk, himself an attorney, should have agreed with the opinions of Mitchell and Gulbrandsen and admitted the Planning Board had made a mistake.
Funk said lawyers disagree on lots of interpretations of law and that's why judges have the final say.
Funk also said he believes a lot of the controversy can be traced to Selectman Currier, who is Sgt. Currier's father.
Brett Currier told The Daily Sun that had he been a selectmen at the time of Funk's most recent re-appointment, he wouldn't have voted to re-seat him.
"I said it when I was running," he emphasized, adding that he has nothing personal against Funk and appreciates and thanks him for his service to the town for the last 15 years. He said the reason he didn't support Funk as chairman was because other people with different ideas wanted to serve on the Planning Board and previous Selectboards had continued to reappoint the same people, year after year.
Funk, as the longest serving member, became chairman earlier this year when selectmen refused to reappoint Girard to another term.
As to the discussion that started the ball rolling toward the selectmen's request for Funk's gavel, Brett Currier said Girard and Tumas came to a nonpublic session of the board to complain about the way police, and specifically his son, were investigating the reported theft of Benson's property. Currier recused himself from the discussion and said he offered to leave the room as well but others present told him he didn't have to.
Currier said he subsequently signed the letter requesting Funk step down because the situation had grown to involve the entire Police Department and its relationship to some members of the Planning Board and didn't necessarily revolve around his son.