Jim Kenyon: Stonewalling the public in Claremont

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

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

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 10-31-2023 6:00 PM

On his re-election campaign website, Claremont City Councilor Jonathan Stone says he’s working to “hold the city administration accountable” to taxpayers.

Now if Stone, a former Claremont police officer, only held himself to the same standard.

For three years, Stone has waged a legal battle to keep the public from gaining access to internal affairs reports pertaining to alleged misconduct during his six years as a city cop in the early 2000s.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Stone’s case on Nov. 14. By then, however, Claremont voters will already have gone to the polls.

City elections are Tuesday. Stone, 50, is facing Jonathan Hayden, an organic produce farmer, in the nonpartisan contest for the city’s Ward 3 seat.

It’s the first time in four elections that Stone has drawn an opponent. Whether Stone’s lack of transparency about his time as a city employee will hurt his re-election chances is hard to say.

It hasn’t in the past. Last November, Stone, running as a Republican, earned one of two seats in the state House of Representatives for a district consisting of Claremont and eight smaller communities.

Stone didn’t respond to my email request or phone message seeking an interview this week.

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On Monday, I talked with Hayden, a 37-year-old first-time candidate. He told me that he’s not making Stone’s civil lawsuit against the city a campaign issue.

“People know there is a history,” Hayden said. “I’m going to let the public raise that question.”

“In today’s political world, I don’t know if there’s anything that can damage a candidate’s reputation,” he added.

City Councilor Jim Contois, a vocal critic of Stone, is urging residents to “make noise” in the days leading up to the election. Stone “doesn’t want this stuff brought up,” said Contois, who isn’t seeking re-election.

An opportunity for residents to bring up the lawsuit — and Stone’s reasoning for wanting to keep details of the internal affairs reports a secret — could come Saturday. The Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce is holding a “meet the candidates” event at the Claremont Savings Bank Community Center, starting at 9 a.m.

Even if Stone is asked about the lawsuit, Contois acknowledges it might not be a game-changer in Ward 3, which he described as “Trump heavy.” (In 2020, Ward 3 was the only area of the city to favor Donald Trump, albeit by just 72 votes.)

Judging by what he’s posting online, Stone continues to view Trump as someone who could help sway voters in his direction. Stone includes a photo of him and Trump, where both are giving a thumbs-up sign.

Regardless of Tuesday’s election outcome, Stone has a lot riding on his upcoming day in front of the state Supreme Court. The decision, which could take a while to be issued, will likely determine if Stone’s time as a Claremont police officer continues to dog him or he’s able to bury it for good.

After reaching a “negotiated agreement” with the city, Stone resigned from the police department in 2007. Under the agreement, Stone’s records were hidden from public view.

In May 2020, however, the state Supreme Court issued two decisions that made it possible for internal records pertaining to alleged police misconduct to become public information.

Following the decisions, freelance reporter Damien Fisher asked Claremont officials for Stone’s disciplinary records under the state’s right-to-know law. The New Hampshire Union Leader later made a similar request.

Stone’s attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, has argued the city was “legally bound” under the 2007 agreement not to release the information in order to protect Stone’s “privacy interests.”

The American Civil Liberties of New Hampshire and the Union Leader joined the legal effort to get the records released. “Any privacy interest (by Stone) is clearly outweighed by the public interest,” Union Leader attorney Gregory Sullivan told a judge.

Reporters aren’t seeking Stone’s medical records or other personal information such as addresses and phone numbers. The information being sought deals with how a public employee “performed in their duties,” Sullivan said.

In October 2022, Sullivan County Superior Court Judge Martin Honigberg denied Stone’s request for an injunction to prevent the city from “disclosing various documents” regarding his time as a Claremont cop.

But the judge granted Stone’s request to keep the public from viewing the documents until the Supreme Court weighed in.

“We definitely welcome,” the opportunity to go before the five justices in Concord, Decato said in a phone interview Monday.

The court could have limited the two sides to written briefs. Instead lawyers will have a chance to make their case in oral arguments at a public hearing during which time justices pose questions.

Although the Supreme Court has opened the door for greater public access to police records in recent years, the question remains whether the 2020 decisions should apply to information that in Stone’s case is decades old, Decato said.

Stone and the city “went to arbitration and settled the case,” Decato said. “There were no findings (of wrongdoing). The case just ended.”

I don’t doubt that Decato, who has argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court during his 50-year law career, will give the justices a lot to think about.

But no matter which way the case goes, it doesn’t absolve Stone from answering to the public. On his campaign website, Stone claims he’s a conservative who fights to reduce government spending.

I checked with the city to find out how much it’s spent so far on legal fees in Stone’s case. The amount: $71,908.

That’s a lot of money. The kind of spending that city councilors should be held accountable for.

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