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Jim Kenyon: Claremont cop-turned-city-councilor seeks to keep his past police write-ups private

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/21/2021 8:19:26 AM
Modified: 11/23/2021 3:04:03 PM

In 2006, Claremont cop-turned-city-councilor Jonathan Stone handed in his gun and badge, which was probably a wise move. I don’t think he was cut out for police work.

With 11 internal investigations into his conduct resulting in findings of wrongdoing, Stone’s seven-year record as a Claremont officer was checkered at best.

But Stone didn’t leave policing without a parting gift.

Under a so-called arbitration award, Claremont officials promised to keep secret any disciplinary action taken against him, including a one-day suspension and notice of termination in 2006. The city also agreed to purge Stone’s personnel file of references to the disciplinary actions and events leading up to his departure from the force.

Why bring all of this up now?

After years of escaping public scrutiny, the backroom deal has moved to a New Hampshire courtroom.

On Tuesday, Sullivan Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker heard arguments about whether information that could prove damaging to Stone’s reputation should be made public.

With more legal wrangling ahead, it could be a while before Tucker reaches a decision. In the meantime, there’s plenty going on that’s newsworthy.

The legal proceedings began last year after Damien Fisher, a freelance reporter, and then Mark Hayward, of the New Hampshire Union Leader, made separate right-to-know requests for records pertaining to Stone’s conduct as a police officer.

From a journalist’s perspective, Stone was fair game. Along with serving on the council, Stone, a Republican, entered the 2020 race for a New Hampshire House seat. (He lost in the general election.)

As a three-term councilor, Stone wields a certain amount of power in his hometown, which I suspect wasn’t lost on Claremont officials when they received the public records requests. So they punted.

In a letter to InDepthNH, a nonprofit news website that publishes Fisher’s work, City Manager Ed Morris indicated that he couldn’t elaborate on the “sustained” findings of wrongdoing against Stone. (Stone was a Claremont police officer from 1999 to 2006, Morris told me last week.)

The city asked Tucker to rule on what documents could be released. made public. On Tuesday, the judge reiterated his August 2020 ruling on Claremont’s request. “It’s the city’s responsibility, not mine” to determine what records are — and are not — exempt from disclosure, he said.

Last September, Stone went to court to block the city from releasing information about his record as a police officer.

Which brings me to Tuesday’s hearing at the county courthouse in Newport, and the agreement made 15 years ago between Stone and Claremont officials. (From what I can gather, none of them still work for the city.)

Stone’s attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, argued the city is “legally bound” under the agreement not to release the information. Stone’s “privacy interests” must be protected, he told the judge.

Gregory Sullivan, who represents the Union Leader, and Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the American Civil Liberties of New Hampshire, disagree.

“Any privacy interest (by Stone) is clearly outweighed by the public interest,” Sullivan said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sullivan stressed that reporters aren’t seeking medical or other personal information such as addresses and phone numbers. The information being requested deals with how a public employee “performed in their duties,” Sullivan said.

But there might more to the story than the city is letting on. It’s possible Claremont purged Stone’s personnel record but still kept a paper trail.

“Do the records still exist somewhere else in the city?” Tucker asked.

Regardless of where the city keeps the records, the public is “entitled to this information,” Bissonnette said.

I raised the judge’s question with Morris, who began overseeing Claremont’s daily operations in September 2019. “I want to stay out of particulars,” he told me. “I’ll let our attorney handle that.”

Shawn Tanguay, a Manchester attorney whom the city is paying $205 an hour, wouldn’t talk with me after Tuesday’s hearing or later by phone.

The ACLU asserts that Claremont officials didn’t have the law behind them when they promised Stone confidentiality. “A contract can’t trump public records law,” Bissonnette told me. “It would undermine accountability of public officials.”

On Friday, I talked at length with Decato. He thinks it’s unfair for me or anyone to assume that Stone was a bad cop.

Fifteen years ago, with the backing of the Claremont police department’s labor union, Stone was prepared to fight the disciplinary actions handed down by his bosses, Decato said. “It wouldn’t be the first time that police were wrong,” he said.

Decato pointed out that the agreement was far from one-sided. By settling, Claremont officials avoided the risk of having their disciplinary actions getting overturned in an arbitration hearing.

But if the records become public now, “you’re only going to get the police version,” Decato said. “It was never litigated. Jon never had an opportunity to question his accusers.”

Stone, who is a correctional officer at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., agreed to leave the police department in exchange for confidentiality so he could get on with his life, Decato said.

The problem with that narrative is that he didn’t get on with his life, at least outside reasonable scrutiny by taxpayers. He’s continued to serve in law enforcement, albeit in Vermont; he’s occupied public office; and he’s even campaigned for a seat in the Statehouse, where public records law happens to be written.

For a guy whose lawyer cites his “privacy interests,” he hasn’t shown much interest in staying private.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Correction

The New Hampshire Union Leader made a right-to-know request with the ci ty of Claremont for records pertaining to former police officer Jonathan Stone in October 2020, four months after Damien Fisher, a freelance reporter, had also sought the records. An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect time frame for the requests.




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