Alton, NH- An Alton, NH resident was removed from a selectboard meeting, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after he opined during public comment that the selectmen should resign.
The man arrested, Jeffrey T. Clay, has attended several Alton Selectboard meetings between December 2014 and the February 2015, according to Alton’s meeting minutes records. In past meetings, Clay has alleged that the Selectboard ignores the rules and laws of the board and has further accused the Board of violating New Hampshire’s right-to-know law. He has also voiced his objection to having police presence at the Selectboard meetings, describing the presence as a way to intimidate the public.
The Alton Selectboard recently adopted a policy regarding public comment at the meetings, limiting speaking time for each individual to five minutes. At the February 3rd meeting where Clay was arrested, he had spoken for about forty seconds criticizing the Selectmen’s “poor decisions” and “continued violations of the citizen’s rights” and urging them to resign before Selectman David Hussey interjected “This is character assasination” and left the room.
The Board decided to close public comment after Clay had spoken for just over two minutes, stating that Clay was making “defamatory” and “libelous” remarks. Clay continued to speak despite the Board’s motion and was then approached by Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath. Clay was placed under arrest after rebuffing Heath’s several orders to leave the meeting.
Heath told the Union Leader that Clay was “warned three times at this meeting. But when I tried to talk to him, he started being combative with me.”
Heath appeared to take exception to Clay’s repeated accusations at several Selectboard meetings. “[Clay] seems to feel that he has been wronged by all of society,” Heath said. “He has a right to free speech, but he has done the same thing at five meetings in a row, and we gave him three warnings. I didn’t have any choice under the law but to arrest him.”
Clay was arrested for violating two New Hampshire state law provisions that prohibit “disrupting the orderly conduct of business in any public or governmental facility” and “disrupting any lawful assembly or meeting of persons without lawful authority.”
Since the arrest, Clay said that the board reacted in this manner because he has been pressuring the Selectboard to comply with right-to-know requirements concerning public meetings. He said that certain town committee workshops violate the law. Clay has hired lawyer Mark Sisti to fight the charges. Sisti is the same lawyer who defended another New Hampshire resident, William Baer, who had been arrested at a Gilford school board meeting last May.
Baer was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for violating a two-minute speaking rule when he criticized the school board for failing to notify parents about sexually explicit literature assigned to his daughter’s English class. Baer’s charges were later dismissed by a judge who called Baer’s behavior at the meeting “impolite, but not criminal.”
Clay said that his urging the Alton Selectboard to resign was not a remark made lightly and called it a “fair comment.”
“If you’re going to keep meeting in private and violating the law, you should resign,” he said.