By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Defense attorney Jared Bedrick maintains that Jeffrey Clay’s actions, which Prosecutor Anthony Estee says clearly show Clay’s intention to disrupt a meeting of the Alton Board of Selectmen last February, are instead an example of the freedom expressed in a Woody Guthrie song.
In his closing arguments before Judge Michael Garner on Tuesday, Bedrick recalled hearing “This Land Is Your Land” as a child, and seeing a picture of Guthrie’s guitar, with its message, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” when he was in college.
“It didn’t mean he hit people with his guitar, but that he spread ideas. He went around and spread ideas, and by doing so, he changed minds,” Bedrick said.
“When I became an attorney, I found out that what really kills fascists is our constitution and our courts, which allow someone like Jeffrey Clay to stand up and try to change minds and make progress.
“What I fear,” he continued, “is that, when a governmental body hears that kind of scrutiny and tries to label my client as a miscreant who engages in antisocial behavior. I get concerned because, when I go home to tell my kids what the verdict is in this case, I hope it’s a verdict that says they can participate in public discourse without fear of being kicked out and labeled a criminal.”
Estee’s closing arguments in the hearing that began last August in the New Hampshire Circuit Court District Division Laconia were much simpler. Clay purposely caused a public annoyance by interrupting the business at hand, and he pulled away from the police officer trying to escort him away. The charges of disobeying a police officer and disorderly conduct are justified, Estee said.
Testimony in the trial, which began Aug. 1 and was continued to Oct. 17, showed that Clay spoke three times during a discussion about enacting an ambulance billing policy on Feb. 22, calling the selectmen incompetent for not already having a policy on place. A video of the meeting that was introduced into evidence in the trial showed that, during a later public comment period, he again called the selectmen incompetent, and Chairman Cydney Shapleigh-Johnson interrupted him to ask him to state which agenda item he was speaking about. When he continue taunting the board with insults, she called a recess “to allow him to cool down.”
During the recess, he hurled insults at the selectmen and their attorney, James Sessler, and goaded the police officers present, saying, “You can’t wait to throw the cuffs on me.”
After reconvening the meeting, Shapleigh-Johnson again warned Clay that he needed to address an item on the agenda, or he would be asked to leave.
“Didn’t you lose enough money the last time when you embarrassed the town by having me arrested?” Clay asked, alluding to a $45,200 settlement he had received in a civil lawsuit against the town following a meeting in February 2015 when board policy did not allow anyone to criticize a public employee.
Shapleigh-Johnson called for assistance in removing Clay from the building, and Cpl. William Tolios attempted to get him to leave. Clay demanded to have his three minutes of public comment allowed under board policy and asked whether Tolios intended to arrest him.
“You’re going to be detained while I investigate whether to file disorderly conduct charges,” Tolios responded.
Tolios ultimately arrested Clay for resisting arrest, and the town later added the disorderly conduct charge.
“He was given multiple opportunities to identify what item on the agenda he was referring to, but he was simply expressing his displeasure with the Board of Selectmen,” said Estee. “The Alton selectmen have the lawful authority to enact rules and ask the police to remove a person if the person does not voluntarily leave. … It was a lawful order, issued to prevent or terminate what the officer believes to be a disruption of the meeting.”
Tolios, now a police sergeant, had been on the stand when the trial recessed last August, and he took the stand again at the beginning of Tuesday’s session. Bedrick questioned him intently on how he had come to his decision to make the arrest, and whether it was based on his own or Shapleigh-Johnson’s determination that Clay had been disruptive.
Bedrick also questioned Police Chief Ryan Heath about why police were present at the meeting. The chief said their policy was to have police at all regularly scheduled selectmen’s meetings because of “various contentious issues that come up.”
When Estee raised an objection about the relevance of the questioning, Bedrick said, “I believe that he was there because he was aware of Mr. Clay’s attendance and the town has a trigger finger with Mr. Clay. His presence alone is why they would take swift, harsh action against Mr. Clay.”
When the defense called Clay to the stand, he described the intimidation he felt from the town. “I fear going to town meetings in Alton,” he said, recounting his original arrest for challenging the selectmen.
“I would talk about issues the town does not want to hear about. I talked about the right to know, and I encouraged them to dress more appropriately,” he said. “They started having a police officer sit right behind me, to instill fear in me. As soon as I walk through the door, they call the police.”
He said he stayed away from meetings after his first arrest, but he got involved again after learning that the town was billing residents for using the ambulance without having a policy in place that changed the prior practice of providing the service at no charge.
“They were reprehensible,” he said. “They took the money collected from billing and used it to pay firefighters’ wages, rather than putting it into a special revenue account. They take money from the poorest people in town and turn it over to a firefighter for a purpose it’s not supposed to be used for.”
He said the selectmen knew he was going to discuss that during the public hearing and cut him off before he could get to his subject.
Clay said he was confused by Tolios’ intervention, when the officer did not explain what he meant by detention. “I kept asking, ‘Are you arresting me?’” Clay said.
He told the judge that he has poor vision in one eye and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as severe panic disorder, so when the officer approached from his blind side and touched him on the shoulder, his heart started racing and he was unsure what was taking place.
He said it was the Board of Selectmen, and not himself, who created the disruption.
Judge Garner took the case under advisement and told the attorneys he would accept additional written statements for 30 days, with another 15 days allowed for the other party to respond. He apologized to Clay for dragging the case out, but said his caseload prevented him from deliberating right away, and he said taking the additional time will allow him to make the right finding for everyone involved.