ROCHESTER - During a Sept. 20 City Council public hearing a Rochester resident who frequently spars with city officials referenced an email published in The Rochester Voice that was sent by Rochester Planning Director Shanna Saunders to New Hampshire Listens, a group that says it works to facilitate solutions for various communities.
In the email Saunders complains that at an Aug. 26 planning board meeting Gonic residents who opposed a low-income apartment housing project that would be located at the Gonic Brickyards property, which is zoned industrial, which prohibits high density housing.
In the email Saunders said she had to endure "an hour and half of rowdy pubic input, in which the public came out with pitchforks in hand."
When Susan Rice, who would likely be considered a gadfly of the city by many high-ranking government officials, mentioned Saunders by name shortly after the nine-minute mark, Mayor Paul Callaghan immediately struck his gavel.
"You can't say names, you can say city official," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire would disagree, according to a statement sent to The Voice earlier this month by Gilles Bissonnette, their legal director.
"The Court has defined a public official as someone with a position in government that has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds it, beyond the general interest in the qualifications and performance of all governmental employees," Bissonnette wrote.
In evidence of his argument he cited the case of Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 (1966).
In other words, Bissonnette wrote that the "'public official' designation applies at the very least to those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs," citing the same case.
In general terms, Bissonnette also noted that, "Any suggestion by the City that all city employees would not be an appropriate subject of public comment if connected to an agenda item would be incorrect and potentially even be a viewpoint based in violation of the First Amendment. This is because it is very unlikely that the City Council would squelch speech during a public meeting that is praising a public employee, and it is likely that only critical speech about those employees would be suppressed."
Another frequent critic of Rochester's governmental processes, state Rep. Cliff Newton, said that Bissonnette is completely right.
"It's always been my understanding that directors of departments are fair game," Newton said. "But you never single out rank and file employees of a department."
Rice, who now calls herself a member of the "Gavel Club" - those who have been "gaveled" silent by Callaghan - took exception with another department head, Econ Development Director Mike Scala at a public hearing on Oct. 18 after Scala's presentation on the proposed expansion of downtown zoning.
After deriding the department's lack of public information regarding the city's plans for the downtown, she turned her ire to Scala around the 15.25 mark.
"As for you Mr. Scala, if I were in your shoes I would ask the city manager for a glowing letter of recommendation and start applying for a private sector job."
"Alright," Callaghan challenged after three quick gavels.
"Don't gavel me!" Rice said tersely.
"No personal," Callaghan blurted.
"I have the floor," retorted Rice, her dander rising.
"You don't talk personal about city employees," said Callaghan.
A clearly frustrated Rice then implored, "Where's that stated?"
"This is common," was all Callaghan could manage before "moving on" s he so often says.
You can hear Rice muttering, "No, it's not." as she leaves the podium.
Moments later during public comment for a City Council workshop, Rice continued her lambasting of the city and its mayor.
Referring to Callaghan's gaveling of her during the earlier public hearing, she accused him of violating her free speech, which was referenced by ACLU Legal Director.
"You have violated my freedom of speech right," she said. "And to be more specific at the last meeting my talk about the comments of the planning director (Saunders) and the "pitchfork" comment she wrote in her capacity as planning director in an email to New Hampshire Listens email was within my rights. My words were not inciteful, fighting words, obscenity or defamation."
The Rochester Voice sought comment from City Manager Blaine Cox, Callaghan and City Attorney Terence O'Rourke on ACLU's stance, emailing this portion of their statement to the three on Dec. 6:
"Any suggestion by the City that all city employees would not be an appropriate subject of public comment if connected to an agenda item would be incorrect and potentially even be a viewpoint based in violation of the First Amendment. This is because it is very unlikely that the Council would squelch speech during a public meeting that is praising a public employee, and it is likely that only critical speech about those employees would be suppressed."
More than two weeks later The Rochester Voice has yet to receive any reply to our request for comment.
The Sept. 20 City Council workshop gets hot around the nine-minute mark. View the video by clicking here.
The Oct. 18 public hearing gets hot around the 15.25 mark, and City Council workshop on the same video gets hot around the 30-minute mark. Both can be viewed by clicking here.