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City will step up code enforcement effort

LACONIA — One day last week Fire Chief Ken Erickson pulled his command vehicle to a stop across from two vacant buildings at the corner of Webster and Adams streets. The space between them was strewn with discarded furniture and belongings, overlooked by a small barn, slumping under the weight of time.

"Right now this is the worst in the city," Erickson said. Climbing on to the porch of the larger of the two buildings, he pushed open the door, stepped inside and shouted "fire chief, anyone in there!" He went to other building and did the same. Abandoned and unsecured, the property, Erickson said, is both an eyesore and a hazard. He said that it would not be the first vacant building to attract people in search of shelter and warmth, who light fires to heat a meal or fight the cold.

"How would you like to be the guy next door?' Erickson asked, pointing to a gleaming white fenced New Englander without a picket out of place or a shutter askew.

Passing a number of occupied properties where equipment, furniture, mattresses, toys and bags of trash were scattered about the yard or piled high against the building, Erickson said apart from detracting from the appearance of the neighborhood such conditions posed a health risk and fire hazard. "What's worse," he said, "it spreads until the whole neighborhood goes downhill."

In 2009, when the City Council and department managers held a series of strategic planning sessions, enhancing the appearance of public and private property emerged as a high priority. At the time Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) called attention to the growing number of abandoned properties, particularly foreclosed homes in possession of financial institutions.

City Manager Scott Myers said yesterday that when he succeeded Eileen Cabanel in June 2011 the city had been without a code enforcement officer for a year. When a search failed to produce a suitable candidate, he said that the code enforcement function was administratively attached to the Planning Department and it entered a two-year contract with John Turner Consulting of Dover for building inspection services. Myers noted that at the time major construction projects were underway at Lakes Region General Hospital and Laconia High School. The city entered a similar arrangement with McCusker Consulting last year.

Myers acknowledged that fewer resources were assigned to property maintenance. "We more or less took a reactive approach," he said, "by responding to complaints when we received them." He estimated that between 20 and 22 hours per week was spent on property maintenance issues. Nevertheless, there were 202 property maintenance cases in fiscal year 2011, almost twice as many as the year before.

However, beginning with the 2013-2014 budget the hours for property maintenance were increased to 26 per week. Myers said a vacant position is in the process of being filled and that the job description has been strengthened with the expectation that the successful applicant spend 80-percent of the hours in the field identifying and addressing property maintenance issues. At the same time, Myers said that all city employees, especially those who regularly travel around the city, have been advised to serve as "eyes and ears" by reporting situations needing attention. "We're taking a much more pro-active approach," he said.

Myers said that the city also hopes to introduce an electronic inspection platform that would enable the agents of the different departments responsible for inspections — chiefly the Fire, Planning, Public Works and Water departments — to use hand-held devices to communicate with another about the scheduling and completion of inspections. The system would also enable property owners to make a single payment for the various permits they require.

Myers said that consolidating all inspections, including those conducted by the code enforcement director, in the Fire Department is being contemplated. With the proposed renovation and expansion of Central Station there will be sufficient space to house the necessary personnel. Moreover, the addition of four firefighters, which the city hopes to retain when the federal funding for the positions expires next spring, has increased the capacity and flexibility of the Fire Department to conduct inspections without resorting to overtime.

The Fire Department is currently responsible for the interior of all buildings and the chief serves as the city health officer. Myers said that its is not uncommon for fire departments to manage code enforcement, though just as often it falls to the planning department.

Erickson believes that along with closer enforcement, the ordinance should be strengthened. The duty of the Code Enforcement Director "to enforce all laws relating to the construction, alteration, removal and demolition of buildings and structures" as well as enforcement of the BOCA (Building Officials Code Administrators International) Property Maintenance Code, which addresses safety and sanitation.

Without disagreeing, Myers said that enforcing aesthetic standards, which are inherently subjective, can be challenging. A city ordinance, entitled "certain accumulations prohibited," forbids individuals and companies dumping or keeping "offensive matter" on their property so near to public spaces or adjoining properties as to jeopardize public health or impair the use, occupation and enjoyment of neighboring properties. The violation carries a maximum fine of $500.

Myers said that the first response should be to assist property owner's attempts to maintain their premisses, stressing that enforcement is costly and lengthy, especially when it applies to absentee landlords. He recalled that recently the city advertised in the "Los Angeles Times" in an effort to track a landlord to his last known address. He said that Jim Sawyer, the police prosecutor, has been assisting with the most difficult cases. Furthermore, he pointed out that the municipalities possess only what authority over private property owners the Legislature grants them.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:25

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Meredith preparing for June sculpture walk

MEREDITH — In June some 15 locations around town will be graced with original sculptures, fashioned by artists from New Hampshire and New England from a variety of materials, with the opening of the first leg of the Sculpture Walk, sponsored by the Greater Meredith Program.

Bev Lapham, co-chair of the committee managing the project, told the Board of Selectmen this week that after inviting applications from 150 sculptors and reviewing about 50 submissions the jury has chosen some 30 pieces as appropriate for public display. Meanwhile, the committee has scouted more than two dozen locations, including public parks, town streets, commercial properties and private residences, where the sculptures will be placed.

Each sculpture will be mounted, together with a plaque describing the work and identifying the artist. All the pieces are on loan and are not for sale, but anyone is welcome to contact an artist and commission a sculpture. The committee will prepare a brochure and walking map to accompany the grand opening on July 1.

Lapham said that the Greater Meredith Program intends to place more than two dozen sculptures at strategic locations over the course of the next two years to add "artistic excitement " and encourage foot traffic downtown.

Lapham urged those interested in the project to visit the Greater Meredith Program website (www.greatermeredithprogram.com) or the Meredith Sculpture Walk Facebook page.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 01:02

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'They changedto policy as I suggested but had me arrested'

GILFORD — The father of a Gilford High School ninth grader who was arrested for disorderly conduct at Monday night's school board meeting after continuing to raise objections about a book assigned to his daughter's ninth grade honors English class after having been directed to stop by School Board Chairman Susan Allen says this whole situation is ''ridiculous.''
William Baer, who moved to New Hampshire nine months ago from New Jersey, was arrested by Acting Gilford Police Chief Lt. James Leach, who escorted him from the room and handcuffed in a hallway outside the meeting room before being led to a police cruiser and taken to the Gilford Police station. He was later released on $700 personal recognizance bail on the Class M misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and is scheduled to appear in Laconia District Court on June 17 at 8:15 a.m.
Baer was at the meeting to raise objections to what he called a pornographic passage in a book, "Nineteen Minutes" by New Hampshire author Jody Picoult, a book about a school shooting at a fictional New Hampshire high school which has been on the approved reading list at Gilford High School since it was published in 2007.
He said that he was disappointed that there was no forum for discussion with school officials about the book and its content at Monday night's meeting or the failure of the school district to notify parents that it had been assigned, as was the practice in previous years. ''There was no interaction. We got two minutes to speak but couldn't ask questions. There's no accountability there. They had me arrested because I went over the two minute limit. I think people should be shocked and outraged by the assault on free speech and knowing that you can be handcuffed and taken out of a public meeting like that. I've been a  practicing attorney for 20 years and I've never seen anything like that,'' said Baer.
He said that he wasn't mollified by a statement issued by the School Board following Monday night's meeting in which it apologized for the discomfort of those impacted by the choice of the book and for the failure of the School District to send home prior notice of assignment of the novel.
The statement said that board and the district will take immediate action to revise its policies to include notification that requires parents to accept controversial material rather than opt out and that the notification will detail more specifically the controversial material.
Baer said ''they changed the policy as I had suggested, but had me arrested before that. There were people clearly guilty of wrongdoing in that room but I wasn't one of them,'' said Baer.
Baer's arrest came after he was asked to leave the meeting after interrupting a statement by a Joe Wernig, a parent who supported having the book on the school's reading list and suggested that if Baer and other critics had their way ''these people will be dictating what we can and cannot read.''
That prompted Baer to interrupt and say ''that's absurd'. No one's trying to ban the book or burn it''' and defend his criticism of the choice of the book for high school students to read as justified. He was then asked to leave the room by Gilford Police Lt. James Leach and arrested when he refused.
Other parents were also critical of the book, including Doug Lambert, who said that the book was ''insulting to religion'' and that the choice of the topical book ''was cheating kids out of the chance to read real literature.''
Baer has attracted a lot of media attention both before and after Monday night's meeting, which was filmed by WMUR Channel 9, including an interview with Education Action Group Foundation, a group which says it wants to promote sensible education reform and expose those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
The group has been critical of teacher unions and Common Core policies adopted by most states.
In the EAG interview, Baer said that he thinks the nation's public education system is indoctrinating children with moral relativism and that politicians and educators running the public school system want to undermine the family unit and undermine traditional morality.
He said he still supports those views expressed to EAG, although they might have written about in a nuanced manner,
And he stands by his statement that ''many people in education and government truly believe our children are theirs. That parents are only the custodians who feed them and put a roof over their head. These school incidents are a byproduct of the 'we know best philosophy.' They believe they have the authority to do this. If people were more complacent, which is hard to imagine, it'd be even worse.'' bu


Baer 1

William Baer, parent of a Gilford High School ninth grader, raises objections to what he described as a pornographic passage from the book ''Nineteen Minutes'' which was assigned to a 9th grade honors English class, before the Gilford School Board Monday night. Baer was later arrested by Gilford Police when he took objection to a statement by another member of the public who charged critics of the book with attempting to control what could be read by students while the person was speaking and refused to leave the meeting. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 May 2014 12:59

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Tilton police detective brokered sale of credit card to one of his relatives

TILTON — A credit card stolen from a local man ended up in the hands of a close relative of a Tilton police detective who has since been placed on a long paid leave of absence.

According to documents obtained by The Daily Sun, Det. Cpl. Matthew Dawson said in an interview with the Merrimack County Sheriff's Department that he had no idea the card was stolen when he allegedly arranged for his "uncle" to buy it for a fraction of its retail value.

The story of the credit card began on June 8, 2013 when Tilton Patrol Officer Andrew Salmon responded to Clark Road to investigate the theft of a $2,000 rebate card from Lowe's Home Improvement store.

The owner of the card had gotten it as the result of making a purchase at Lowe's for a home restoration project. The owner described it as a rebate card that was issued by Lowe's but was backed by a major credit card company and could have been used anywhere. Unlike store credit — a rebate card can be traced, he said.

Salmon contacted the loss prevention officer at Lowe's who gave him the dates, amounts and transaction numbers associated with the stolen rebate card. Surveillance tapes from the Tilton Lowe's store showed an man buying two vent filters and the loss prevention officer's told Salmon that it was his understanding that the same card was used to make a $1,900 purchase of building materials at the Lowe's store in Littleton.

On June 13, Salmon got the store video and interviewed the contractor who was hired to do the work at the home from where the card was stolen. Salmon showed the surveillance photos to the contractor who was unable to identify the man using the card.

As part of the investigation into the theft of the card, Salmon was later interviewed by Merrimack County Sheriff's Department investigators who told them that after he spoke to the contractor he went into his police squad room to add the interview to his report.

Salmon said that while he was in the squad room, Dawson came in.

Salmon's narrative said he "figured he would ask Dawson if he could ID the male subject" from the Lowes surveillance footage and Dawson identified him right away as his relative.

"Dawson then stated that his relative had obtained the card from Fast Cash," Salmon said.

Fast Cash is a pawn shop on Laconia Road in Tilton.

When Salmon said he said he would call Fast Cash and see who sold them the card purchased by Dawson's relative, he told investigators that Dawson balked and told him Fast Cash would "not have the info".

Salmon said he thought Dawson's retraction was "odd" and said that was when Dawson began telling him his version of the story.

According to Salmon's report,  Dawson told him one of his confidential informants (C.I.) had contacted him and wanted to know if he knew anyone who could use a $2,000 Lowe's card.

"Dawson stated he asked the C.I. if the card was 'legit' which he was told 'it was,'" reported Salmon, noting that Dawson told him he then called his uncle and told him to meet the C.I. at Lowe's parking lot and buy the card for $500.

Dawson apparently told his relative to use the card for a small amount to make sure it was valid before he gave the C.I. any money. He described the items his uncle purchased at the Tilton Lowe's and Salmon said they were consistent with what he learned from the loss prevention manager.

When Salmon asked about the $1,900 transaction in Littleton, Dawson allegedly said he personally placed that order and got an additional employee discount from a employee he knows in Littleton. Dawson told Salmon that he used his own personal credit card to cover the amount over the balance left on the card for the purchase. The materials were dropped at a site Dawson was working at in the Littleton area.

Salmon reported he ended the conversation with Dawson after Dawson said he was going to call the C.I. and speak with him about the card.

Salmon said about two hours later Dawson told him who his C.I. got the card from. Dawson said the C.I. was going to try and get the guy who stole the card to talk to the victim about making him whole.

Salmon filed his report with Tilton Lt. Ryan Martin at 6 p.m. on June 17.

The Merrimack County Sheriff's Department began an investigation that month into the matter of the stolen credit card after learning that the Belknap County Sheriff's Department felt there could be a potential conflict if it was to conduct the investigation.

As part of an interview conducted on June 27, Dawson told the Merrimack County investigators the same story he told Salmon. The investigators also told Dawson the investigation was only about the theft of the credit card and was not an internal investigation about him.

Dawson told the investigators that the C.I. was one he knew fairly well and he was trying to protect his identity.

Dawson admitted to the investigator that he initially lied to Salmon because "when you tell people certain things (about informants), word gets out, and this is, you know... and then everything goes to (explicative) from there.

Merrimack County investigators pressed Dawson about his lie to Salmon and questioned him exhaustively about whether he told Salmon the truth before he met with his lieutenant or after he met with him. Dawson said it was before he met with his lieutenant, which is consistent with what Salmon told them.

Investigators also questioned Dawson about how much money his uncle paid for the card and learned it was $600.

One investigator said a $2,000 card selling for $600 "would raise red flags for me saying, why is he letting this sucker go that low?"

"Yeah I know what the law is, known or should have known that it was stolen," Dawson replied, saying the C.I. repeatedly told him that the card was "legit" and even after he confronted him, the C.I. told him he never would have knowingly sold a police officer a stolen card.

Speaking on background, a long-time New Hampshire police supervisor who is not affiliated with Tilton or the Merrimack or Belknap County Sheriff's Department, explained that criminal investigations and internal investigations are two entirely different things.

He said that a criminal investigation is held by an independent policing authority and, depending on the circumstances, an internal investigation could be done at the same time as a criminal investigation or after it.

He gave an officer-involved shooting as an example. The actual shooting is investigated as a crime by the N.H. Attorney General's Office. If the AG determines the shooting was justified and no crime was committed, then the department that employs the officer conducts its own investigation to see if its own rules were violated.

If they weren't, then everything goes back to normal. If the department's own rules were violated, he said the punishment can range from an oral reprimand all the way up to dismissal. He said the officer would likely be on a paid administrative leave for the duration of both investigations.

It does not appear Dawson was the target of the Merrimack County Sheriffs Department criminal investigation. He didn't steal the card.

Richard H. Miner, 38, formerly of Northfield, was indicted by a Grafton County grand jury two months ago for allegedly stealing the rebate card. The case has been assigned a Belknap County docket number and he has been arraigned.

If there was an internal investigation of Dawson's behavior, The Sun doesn't know about it. Personnel records in New Hampshire are private and not subject to Right-To-Know requests.

Dawson was placed on leave in November 2013. His status remains the same today.

It is not known if there is a direct connection between the use of the stolen credit card and Dawson's leave.

Chairman Pat Consentino said the Selectboard took up the subject of Dawson's status in April but declined to comment further, saying it is a personnel matter. She said Selectman Katherine Dawson, who is Matt Dawson's aunt, recused herself from participating in the meeting.

As of yesterday, Dawson is being paid $30.58 per hour. He has not been at work since early November.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 May 2014 02:47

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