Gilmanton won’t move forward on threats to punish some residents who put up lawn signs critical of the local select board, after getting a stern warning that its actions violated residents’ First Amendment rights.
Selectman Stephen McWhinnie made a motion to backtrack on the sign enforcement at a select board meeting Thursday night, after consulting for about an hour behind closed doors with a town attorney. McWhinnie and the board then immediately went back into nonpublic session for the rest of the evening, without elaborating on their reasons for doing so.
The lawn signs in question read, “WE SUPPORT GILMANTON POLICE EVEN IF SELECTMEN DON’T,” and stemmed from an ongoing dispute over the management of the local police department.
The town initially told several residents the signs violated local zoning codes, but the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU intervened to argue that they were a protected form of free speech.
While residents said there were plenty of the pro-police, anti-select board signs scattered around town, it appears the notice only went out to a small group of dissenters – among them, outspoken former selectmen and the parents of the police chief.
Sandi Guarino and her husband, a former selectman, were among those who got a letter about the sign in their yard. Guarino said the way the town handled this situation added to an already eroding sense of trust in the town government.
“It’s just such a disappointment. It is such a disappointment they would target a certain group of people,” said Guarino, alluding to the fact that the letter instructing the signs to be removed apparently only went out to a few people. “It’s just one more thing – just add it to the list of all that’s happened.”
Their list of grievances, according to several frustrated residents who showed up at Thursday’s meeting, includes selectmen's excessive use of nonpublic meetings, as well as what they describe as a general lack of transparency about basic town functions or finances.
Most recently, residents were also left wondering why Gilmanton officials decided to abruptly lock down its town hall during business hours – forcing residents to press a button to request entry, where they used to be able to walk in and out freely. A sign on the doors of the municipal building cites “increased safety concerns for our employees” as the reason for the increased security measures.
When pressed for answers at Thursday’s meeting, selectmen and town employees declined to provide any further explanation.