May 02, 2018FREEDOM — A case filed against Freedom town officials was quickly settled in an April 16 agreement, with selectmen reading a public statement and agreeing to pay the plaintiff's legal bill.
Freedom resident Robert Hatch filed suit against the town March 19, alleging town officials violated the state constitution, state law, and publicly humiliated him when they removed him from his positions on the town conservation and forest advisory committees in November 2017.
As part of the settlement agreement, Freedom Selectman Les Babb read the following statement at their April 16 meeting: "Volunteerism and public service is at the very core of a strong and vibrant community. Rob Hatch has served for many years on the Freedom Conservation Commission and the Forest Advisory Committee. In that service, he has shared his broad knowledge of the forest, its ecology and resources with the other members and the public. The forests of Freedom were well served under Rob's stewardship. The Freedom Selectmen express their appreciation for Rob's many years of community service."
According to the settlement, the Town will pay Hatch's attorney's fees up to $7,500 and both parties agree not to disparage each other. Hatch was represented by Ossipee-based attorney Richard Sager of Sager and Smith, PLLC.
Sager's March 19 filing at the court sought to set aside Hatch's "illegal" removal from office "by a prejudiced and partial board of selectmen," alleged several violations of NH RSA 91-A (referred to as the Right-to-Know law), and charged that Hatch's due process was violated.
In the presented facts, it is noted that Hatch has served through both his time and monetary donations "for the betterment" of Freedom since 2003. At some point, selectmen became "dissatisfied" with Hatch's public service and on Oct. 23, 2017 asked him to resign from the conservation and forest advisory committees. Hatch refused. On Nov. 27, 2017, selectmen held a public hearing, as required by state law, as part of the chain of events that must occur if considering removing appointed or alternate members of local land use boards.
Following the public hearing, selectmen went into a closed-door session. The board at that time included Babb, Neal Boyle, and Ernie Day. When they came out of their session, Boyle's motion to remove Hatch from his appointed positions passed. Hatch, through an attorney, notified the selectmen in a Feb. 8 letter that they had violated his rights. The board did not respond. Six days after Alan Fall ran unopposed to fill Boyle's seat, the suit was filed.
Sager asserted that the board was prejudiced and could not treat Hatch fairly since they had already made up their minds to remove him prior to the public hearing. In fact, in a harsh letter selectmen sent to Hatch Oct. 27, 2017, Sager noted, the board stated that Hatch's conduct creates inefficiency, he is not a team player, that his emails are spiteful, and that his actions cause "unrest." Sager said the negative bias should have kept the selectmen away from the hearing process to ensure Hatch received a fair hearing about his removal. And, Sager said, rather than selectmen conducting the hearing and removal, they should have petitioned the superior court to let a judge decide whether Hatch should continue to serve on the boards. The complaint also notes that no one who testified at the public hearing was placed under oath, as required by state law, and Hatch was not given the opportunity to respond to any of the allegations lobbed against him.
The complaint lists multiple alleged violations of the Right-to-Know law. Selectmen can only enter non-public session for specific reasons and discussing the removal of a town official from office is not one of them. Further, the complaint alleges, selectmen held three non-public sessions – two in October 2017 and one following the Nov. 27, 2017 public hearing – and none followed the lawful procedure. These procedures include notifying Hatch he would be discussed to give him the opportunity to request an open meeting, roll call votes required to enter the sessions, voting to seal the minutes and, if no vote is taken, making the minutes available to the public within 72 hours. Though the Right-to-Know law is very specific when discussing non-public meeting procedure, it is common for even the most seasoned local official's misstep, even unintentionally, in its application. Several municipal organizations, including New Hampshire Municipal Association, offer training throughout the year. Unlike some recent settlement agreements, there is no mention in the Freedom case that selectmen will undergo enhanced training.
The original complaint asked that the public record be stricken of all disparaging comments about Hatch, and that he be re-instated to both positions. The settlement agreement does not include either of those actions.