Motivation for Alton chief's arrest of public speaker topic of court hearing

LACONIA — Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath spent about an hour on the stand in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia District yesterday testifying about why and under what circumstances he arrested Jeffrey Clay — a local man who was addressing the Board of Selectmen at the time. Judge Jim Carroll took the matter under advisement and will issue a ruling at a latter date.

Yesterday's proceeding was a hearing on Clay's motion to dismiss the charges. Under direct examination from Alton Prosecutor Anthony Estee, Heath testified that he was at Town Hall the night he arrested Clay for two reasons — he had administrative business to discuss with the board and that since November of 2014 the board had asked for a police presence because of some disturbances.

"Mr. Clay started asking members to stand up and resign," Heath said, noting Clay also told the members they were violating the Right-to-Know law and that he disliked some of the actions the board had taken.

Heath arrested Clay and removed him from the selectman's meeting on February 3. Initially charged with two separate counts of disorderly conduct — one for failing to move from a public place after he was told to by a police officer (Heath) and one for disrupting a public meeting. The charge of disrupting a meeting was dropped by the prosecution.

Heath said he arrested Clay after the board chair made a motion to close public comment in the middle of Clay's speech. He said he asked Clay twice to take his seat in the audience and Clay ignored him. When Heath touched his left shoulder, Clay told him to remove his hand and continued to talk over the gavel banging of the chair. Heath testified that Clay asked him if he "was under arrest, yet" and he replied "No but you will be if you don't take your seat."

When Clay continued to speak, Heath arrested him.

In court yesterday were three media outlets and some free speech supporters — one of whom held a picture of a Norman Rockwell painting called "The First Amendment" so the judge could see it.

Key to yesterday's testimony was Heath's state of mind when he arrested Clay. The state contends that because of previous encounters, Heath had with Clay, Heath had reason to believe that Clay would exceed his five-minute allotted time.

Also relevant to the arrest is that the Alton Board of Selectmen changed their rules regarding public comment after a February 3 meeting to include that comments couldn't be "slanderous, libelous or make direct references by name of town employees or board members' families".

"It was clear Mr. Clay has escalated his behavior," Heath said, noting that on February 3, he asked asked Clay to stop talking at the request of the selectmen and Clay stopped and took his seat.

Clay's defense attorney Jared Bedrick, Esq. argued that this was pure speculation and that Heath couldn't possibly have known whether or not Clay would exceed his five minutes.

Under cross-examination, Heath testified that Clay was using his cell phone as a timer and had told the selectmen he was doing so.

Bedrick pounded Heath with questions related to his prior contacts with Clay, whether he arrested him on his own volition or whether he was acting at the direction of the board, and about his training in the First Amendment and what constitutes exceptions to it.

He also asked Heath if he understood a person doesn't have to obey and unlawful order from a police officer.

Heath said he understands the different between when he can intervene and when he will arrest someone. He said he arrested Clay because he disobeyed his order to take his seat.

"My decision to arrest was not made by the board," Heath said.

Some of the questions Heath fielded were about previous discussions the two men had over what he could and couldn't say at the meeting. Heath said he told Clay that he should be business-like and respectful and not make comments about the families of the members of the board, especially about their minor children — something Clay had done in the past according to Heath.

Judge Carroll had some questions of his own for Estee and Bedrick about some of the case law they cited in their respective motions and about some of the video he watched that was entered into evidence.

Referring to the video, Carroll noted that Selectman David Hussey called a point of order but didn't specify about what. "Does the state take the position that the conduct was libelous?" he asked.

Bedrick replied that the state doesn't argue that Clay's conduct rose to the definition of slanderous libel.

"So nobody knows if he violated the rules of conduct either," Carroll continued.

When Bedrick started to make reference to recent actions of a Belknap County Sheriff's Office deputy who refused to clear a meeting room when asked to do so by the then chair of the Belknap County Commission. Estee objected saying it was a different case and a different set of facts.

Carroll agreed.

Carroll also wanted to know how the attorneys felt that Heath's private discussions with Clay about what he could and couldn't say constituted prior restraint — or a ruling usually cited by news media who can't be told what they can and cannot publish.

Bedrick said what happened to Clay was worse than prior restraint because it could result in his client having a criminal record. Estee said Clay's arrest was based on Clay's reaction and conduct to Heath — not any previous discussions the two had.

Carroll said that it appears the case centers on the reasonableness of the arrest verses the lawfulness of the order.

Estee argued that Heath, by arresting Clay, prevented and "imminent threat of disorder."

"You guys (didn't prosecute) the case regarding disorder," Carroll said.

Estee countered that the government has a right to conduct orderly meetings.

Fire that claimed 100 acres is almost out

BELMONT — Fire Chief Dave Parenti said yesterday's increase in the relative humidity help fire crews extinguish some of the remaining hot spots in the massive grass and swap fire that burned for three days in Belmont and Northfield.

He said yesterday the relative humidity was about 40 percent whereas the two days before it was down to about 12 to 15 percent.

Parenti said Thursday evening the fire went back up to nearly three alarms as a grove of Alder trees in the middle of the swamp went up in flames.

"It was very difficult to access," Parenti said. "We had helicopters making water drops."

He said crews from the Concord area came to the area to assist local crews.

Yesterday, Parenti said crews from the Upper Valley — Lebanon, Hanover, Claremont and Enfield — assisted strike teams from Tilton-Northfield and Belmont.

"We'll do patrols tomorrow but I think the worst is behind us," he said.

Parenti also said that a team from the N.H. Bureau of Forestry and Land Management estimates that at least 100 acres burned over the past three days making the Industrial Drive fire one of the largest in the area other than those that burned a few years ago on Mount Major.

He said that he and Tilton-Northfield Fire Chief Mike Sitar have nothing but praise and thanks to the multiple communities that assisted them over the past few days.

"We didn't lose any houses or structures and nobody was injured," Parenti said. "I think that's amazing."

Rotary Club marks 90th year in Laconia

LACONIA — The Laconia Rotary Club marked its 90th anniversary Thursday night at the Beane Conference Center with a celebration of its many years of service to the community.
Cub president Pat Anderson said that the club was formed at a meeting at the Laconia Tavern on March 20, 1925, and was the first Rotary club in the Lakes Region, formed just 20 years after the first Rotary Club was formed in Chicago in 1905.
She noted that the club had been honored to host Rotary founder Paul Harris in 1944 and had played a role in helping Wolfeboro form its own Rotary Club just two years after the Laconia club was founded.
She said that she had learned a lot of the club's history by reading through the archives of the club, including its original charter documents, which were on display at the gathering.
Among the founding members were well-known local businessmen such as Oscar Lougee, George Prescott, E. Harrison Merrill, George P. Munsey, Charles St. Clair and Arthur Clough.
One of the founders was a United States Congressman from Laconia, Fletcher Hale, who served from 1925 until his death in 1931 during his fourth term and was chairman of the Laconia Board of Education for seven years from 1918-25.
That pattern of community service and public service has been one of the hallmarks of the Laconia Rotary Club according to Laconia Mayor Ed Engler, featured speaker of the evening, who has been a member of the local club for 15 years.
Speaking on behalf of all residents of the city, he said Laconia is grateful for Rotary Park next to the Belknap Mill, Rotary Hall at the Public Library and the club's generous support for youth sports and college scholarships.
''We are grateful for the people, that individuals and the families over the decades have stepped up again and again,'' said Engler, who pointed out five men who are still active in the club who served as president 25 or more years ago, led by Charlie Stafford, who was the leader in 1978. Others mentioned included Abe Dadian (1979), Tom Volpe (1981), Dennis Ackerman (1986) and Rep. Don Flanders (1988).
He said that there was a core of hard workers within the club who had not sought leadership positions but whose work was invaluable, including Spencer Brody, George Tyler, Dave Clark and Larry Guild.
Dadian, who served as master of ceremonies and displayed his skills as a stand-up comic throughout, said that when he joined the club in 1970 he was the youngest member and that now, at the age of 80, is the fifth oldest. He said that the oldest member of the club at present is Dr. Dave Cleasby, who is 90, followed by Don Beane, who is 87 and joked about Beane's uncanny success at winning the club's weekly 50-50 raffle drawings.
Joanne Cormier, head of the Lakes Region Scholarship Foundation, said that Rotary has been supporter of the organization for 60 years and contributed over $332,000 for scholarships.
Library Director Randy Brough said that when he first took the job in 2001 he was advised by Bob Selig, a club member and a library trustee, that he should join the Rotary Club.
''The library was in bad shape and after the city agreed to fund a renovation and expansion there was a $1 million fund drive,'' said Brough, who pointed out that the Laconia Kiwanis Club was among the first to donate, chipping in with $50,000, which prompted the Rotary Club to donate $75,000.
He said that over the years Rotary Hall at the library has hosted between 1,000 and 2,000 meetings and is a great addition to the library.
Long-time Rotary Club member Warren Clement read a letter from the Laconia Little League, thanking Rotary for its 64 years of sponsorship. He said that after the club built a bandstand for what would become Rotary Park in 1996 that Belknap Mill Director and club member Mary Boswell said that it couldn't just be located in the middle of the parking lot.
Clement said that led to creation of Rotary Park, which came as the result of $210,000 in donations of cash, material and labor.
''It's been a wonderful addition to the downtown,'' said Clement.
A comical interlude featuring a ''Casey at the Bat'' skit was followed by a slide presentation of photos of clubs members as children, bringing the evening to a close.

City grants conditional approval for rock concerts at the Weirs Drive-In during Motorcycle Week

LACONIA — The Motorcycle Technical Review Committee yesterday gave conditional permission to a North Carolina venue promoter to hold a series of concerts at the Weirs Drive-in during Motorcycle Week.

Speaking for Vessarglobal Partners, LLC, Mike Trainer and local engineer Jon Rokeh provided the committee with a close-to-final schematic plan for the venue including a 160-by-100 foot stage that will be set up in front of the movie screen on the northwest side of the property.

The conditions of the approval are that all of the contracts for access with the neighboring properties and vendors be signed, the sub-contract to SFC Engineering — a company that engineers fire protection — be completed, an off-site parking plan be submitted, portable bathroom, waste receptacles and private security contracts be signed, and 50-percent of the money that will be owed to the Police Department for special details be placed in escrow.

June 1 is the deadline for the above and a final site plan is due Friday. Erickson also expressed some concern about more off-site property owners applying for parking permits and suggested they should have a special meeting to discuss it.

Trainer was given permission to hold concerts from Saturday to Saturday for 5,000 or less attendees with additional approval for 10,000 to 15,000 people on Thursday night — June 18, 20,000 people on Friday night — June 19 and up to 30,000 people on Saturday night — June 20.

The initial plan was to have boxing matches on Friday but Trainer said the schedules for the boxers didn't coincide with Motorcycle Week so there will likely be another musical act.

Rokeh estimates the venue — once the stage, the load-in equipment, food vendors, VIP parking, portable bathrooms and trash containers have been set — can accommodate 33,000 people.

The technical committee reviewed emergency exit plans, ways for emergency services and vehicles to access the property, traffic concerns and on-site parking as part of its review.

When asked about ticket sales and turnstiles by Fire Chief Ken Erickson, Trainer said one of the "partners" sponsoring the event will have its own pre-event ticket sales system and ways to electronically notify concert-goers whether or not tickets are still available at the door.

As to ATMs, Trainer said Foxwoods Resort Casinos of Connecticut is one of the "partners" and they will likely make provisions for them.

When asked, Trainer said he wasn't going to name the music acts his partnership will bring to the Weirs until all of the pieces of the puzzle were in place.

One of the biggest pieces was yesterday's conditional approval that he can take back to the partnership to let them know that the city is on board with the plan.

One of the concerns is how late the food vendors can stay open. During Motorcycle Week, vendors close at 12:30 a.m. however with music allowed for this venue until midnight, some worried that the food vendors would be closed too early.

Erickson suggested that the city look at extending the hours for food vendors and City Planner Shanna Saunders said she would speak to the city manager because extending the hours likely needs City Council approval.