How a N.H. woman used public records to expose an illegal land sale in Webster
A Webster resident used New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law to unearth evidence of the illegal sale of town land to a public official last year. Tara Gunnigle and her husband Jon Pearson’s quest for public records led to the resignation of Webster’s former town treasurer. Now, she’s being recognized by the New England First Amendment Coalition for her work.
Gunnigle, who works for the Postal Service, knows the town of about 1,800 people well. She knew the former treasurer, but her ears perked up when it was suggested at a selectboard meeting that a piece of property in town be used for gravel. He objected, saying he owned it.
“That's when everything started,” Gunnigle said. “That's when the light went on."
She filed a 91-A, also known as New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law, which can be used to obtain public information from government officials and institutions.
Gunnigle, along with Pearson and a friend of theirs, filed several 91-As, eventually acquiring more than 100 pages worth of documents. They turned those in to the county attorney, and it was later found that the former treasurer violated a policy he had written himself.
“[The former official] paid $7,000 for an over $50,000 piece of property that we could have gotten about $100,000 worth of sand and gravel out of… We did this because money was being wasted in town,” Gunnigle said.
Webster is a small community, and Pearson’s family dates back generations there. Gunnigle said her actions ruffled a few feathers, but it was worth it.
“There was pushback from some people who said, ‘How can you do such an awful thing to such a nice person?’ And I said, ‘I'm not the one that did the awful thing,’” Gunnigle said.
He can no longer run for any public office in Webster.
Gunnigle said going to select board meetings, reading minutes and filing 91-As is a way of participating in her community. She knows there are people who aren’t able to attend meetings or aren’t familiar with Right-to-Know requests, so if she can help shine a light on local government, she wants to do it. The process taught her some valuable lessons.
“Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your community. This is why we did this,” Gunnigle said.
Gunnigle will be awarded the 2022 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition on March 13.
This story was part of NHPR’s In Our Backyard project, which explores local democracy and civic engagement.