Disorderly conduct, or free speech?
Judge must decide if Alton resident Jeffrey Clay violated meeting rules
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Prosecutor Anthony Estee maintains that Jeffrey Clay had multiple opportunities to conform to meeting rules and avoid arrest last February. Defense attorney Jared Bedrick argues that Cydney Shapleigh-Johnson, chairman of the Alton Board of Selectmen, never gave him the opportunity to make his point.
Three hours of evidence and testimony in the N.H. Circuit Court District Division Laconia on Tuesday was not enough for the attorneys to call all witnesses or get to their final arguments, so the trial recessed, with another two hours of testimony anticipated when it resumes, possibly as late as October.
The case revolves around the selectmen’s Feb. 22 meeting when they held a public hearing on a proposed ambulance billing policy. Clay spoke three times, calling the selectmen incompetent for not already having a policy in place and saying it was another example of why they should resign.
The basis for the charges against Clay came during a later public comment period at the meeting when Clay came to the table and immediately launched into a series of insults.
Tuesday’s hearing began with the judge viewing one hour and six minutes of video from the meeting, beginning with the public hearing and continuing through Clay’s arrest.
When Clay began his public comment session by calling the selectmen incompetent, reckless, and careless, Shapleigh-Johnson interrupted him to ask him to limit his comments to an agenda item, as stipulated in the meeting rules. When he continued taunting the board with insults, Shapleigh-Johnson said she would give him three warnings before having him removed from the meeting. After two warnings, she called a five-minute recess, which she testified was to allow him to cool down.
During the recess, Clay remained at the selectmen’s table and continued to hurl insults at Shapleigh-Johnson and the other board members, as well as town attorney James Sessler. He also goaded the police officers, 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 in a reference to a $45,200 settlement he had received in a civil suit 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 Sgt. William Tolios attempted to get him to leave. When Clay resisted, demanding that he get his three minutes of public comment and asking whether Tolios intended to arrest him, the officer said, “You’re going to be detained while I investigate whether to file disorderly conduct charges.” Ultimately, he arrested Clay for resisting arrest and the town later filed the disorderly conduct charge.
Estee questioned Shapleigh-Johnson to establish that Clay was not observing the rules outlined on the meeting agenda. She testified that, prior to the start of the meeting, Clay had approached her to say she had a lot of nerve running for re-election when she is so incompetent. During his comments on the ambulance billing policy, he continually strayed from the subject to talk about the board’s incompetence, but he returned to the topic at hand and remained within his three-minute comment limit.
She said that, during the public comment period, he continually spoke over her as she attempted to get him to address a particular agenda item.
Under cross-examination, Bedrick focused on how quickly Shapleigh-Johnson cut off Clay’s comments: “How long before you admonished him?” he asked. When she replied, “Fifteen seconds,” he corrected her, “Four seconds,” and he replayed that portion of the video to prove it.
Bedrick then went into a long line of questioning to illustrate that Clay was still addressing the ambulance policy when he spoke during the public comment period. Clay was picking up on his comments about the board’s incompetence during the hearing on ambulance billing when he opened his public comment, Bedrick said, so Shapleigh-Johnson should have known he was addressing an agenda item.
And, if Clay was addressing an agenda item, the argument went, he was not violating policy and police had no reason to arrest him.
When Sgt. Tolios took the stand, Bedrick took the same approach. “Throughout the time he was speaking, when he mentioned incompetence, it had to do with ambulance billing,” Bedrick said. “How would you conclude he was not talking about the ambulance the last time?”
Tolios had testified that he was following the chairman’s direction in asking Clay to leave, but Bedrick argued that a police officer has to have reasonable grounds to act.
He indicated that he would be filing motions to dismiss the charges on constitutional grounds.
- Written by Tom Caldwell
- Category: Local News
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