Board Says Selectman Violated State LawMarch 6, 2015 by the Salem Community Patriot staff
A brief Facebook comment by a Salem selectman on a matter discussed in non-public session has sparked debate on the board and led to a multi-week deliberation.
Responding to a comment on his personal Facebook profile, Selectman Stephen Campbell made mention to a suspension of Police Chief Paul Donovan in 2014.
Campbell posted on Feb. 21, “The fire chief seems to want it. I have not seen the police chief of heard his views since he was suspended earlier…”
While the board has not publically read the comment during a meeting, Campbell has publically referred to an employee’s suspension, saying the information was published in the media, which makes it public knowledge.
Donovan was said to be on a two-week leave of absence for personal reasons in 2014 after a budgeting session with selectmen.
Because the discussion was a personnel matter and was conducted in non-public session, the minutes of which have been sealed, members of the meeting are not allowed to discuss the topic.
RSA 91-A:5 requires certain information discussed during non-public session to be withheld from the public. Section IV states in part “Records pertaining to internal personnel practices; confidential, commercial, or financial information; test questions, scoring keys, and other examination data used to administer a licensing examination, examination for employment, or academic examinations; and personnel, medical, welfare, library user, videotape sale or rental, and other files whose disclosure would constitute invasion of privacy.”
RSA 42:1-a takes the disclosure of the information further, stating a town officer has violated his or her oath of office if the information is disclosed.
“Without limiting other causes for such a dismissal, it shall be considered a violation of a town officer’s oath for the officer to divulge to the public any information which that officer learned by virtue of his official position, or in the course of his official duties,” the RSA states in part.
The RSA states a petition to the county’s superior court would be the manner of dismissing an official for the breach of confidentiality.
Discussion over the post continued Monday night as the board sought to determine if Campbell violated the law.
“Nobody here released it,” Selectman Everett McBride said. “I don’t think we can discuss these things once they’ve been sealed.”
Selectman James Keller said a board member takes an oath and should act cautiously if the behavior is even in question.
“You always err on the side of caution, and you always err on the side of silence,” he said.
Anything discussed in non-public is not discussed, he added. “That’s a standard we should all be held to.”
But Campbell claimed since the information was published in newspapers and broadcast television, it had become public knowledge.
“I posted something on a Facebook page that was in all the newspapers,” he said, adding the stories say officials confirm but do not denote the source.
“I do not go and talk about anything that I learned about in the non-public that I did not read about in the papers,” he said. “There was no intention to leak stuff.”
Other selectmen felt it was important to follow the RSA regardless of what has been released by the media.
“It’s not up for discussion at all,” said Keller. “That’s just a standard we all have to follow.”
Selectman Michael Lyons agreed, saying the RSAs were clear on the matter.
“The four of us have to take a stand,” Lyons said, adding that, as selectmen, they need to conduct themselves appropriately.
Chairman Pat Hargreaves said, once elected, a person is a selectman for the duration of the term.
“I am a resident, but I also have the obligations of a selectman,” he said, adding some people have a hard time differentiating between the two.
“I’m a selectman and I can’t tell you what I hear,” he said. “Do I confirm what I read in the newspapers? I do not.”
Lyons moved that Campbell was in violation of state law RSA 91-A.
Campbell rebutted, saying his comment was from the media and if he had included details such as if the employee was suspended with or without pay, it would be a violation.
“I was very careful about not putting out anything that hadn’t already been given out to the public,” he said. “If I had said the suspension was with or without pay that would be a violation.”
Campbell also added he did not comment on the length of the suspension on Facebook.
The motion passed 3-2 with Campbell and Hargreaves in the opposition.
But that motion was not the end of discussions on the matter with Hargreaves distributing a packet of information to the board and calling for a 10-minute recess. Members could be seen reviewing the information during the break.
When the board reconvened, Campbell said residents don’t give up their rights when they become selectmen.
“You stress to them I am here as a private citizen,” Campbell said. “I have to be able to do things that aren’t selectman related.”
“This year I was chairman of the board. I have to act as the chairman of the board,” Hargreaves said. “There are certain things that you are when you are an elected official.”
Hargreaves continued. “You are the fathers of Salem,” he said to the board. “I’m it 24/7.”
Hargreaves criticized Campbell’s habit of occasionally speaking during a meeting with the precursor that he was presenting as a citizen, not a selectman.
“You always go to the resident side when it benefits you and a selectman when it benefits you,” he said.
The Salem Community Patriot has been made aware via email of at least three complaints made against Campbell by different town employees. Campbell claimed the complaints against him were based on his opposition to Article 7, a proposal to build a town safety complex.
The board backed the project headed by Keller and McBride, but Campbell has publically spoken out against the proposal.
Campbell said he campaigned against Article 7 as a resident only. “When I’m acting for myself or for my family, I differentiate,” he said.
Hargreaves questioned Campbell on why the board moved an informational interview with Keller from the Salem Government Channel SGC 23 to Salem Community Television.
“I’m a selectman 24/7 till March 10, 2016,” Hargreaves said.
The board voted unanimously to table further deliberations until the next meeting after the elections.