Couple who pursued town government wrongdoing honored

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – A Webster, New Hampshire couple, who pursued town government wrongdoing are this year’s winners of a journalism school’s First Amendment Award.

Tara Gunnigle and Jon Pearson will be honored by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications on Nov. 9.

Gunnigle and Pearson regularly attend select board meetings in Webster. They were at a meeting last year when the topic of potential gravel use from two town-owned parcels was discussed. Bruce Johnson, town treasurer, said that wouldn’t happen because he had purchased the land from the town.

The couple filed Right to Know requests but were told files were either sealed, missing or didn’t exist. They then sought revenue and tax records, property deeds and sealed minutes, which the board agreed to open. They eventually presented to Webster’s police chief and the Merrimack County attorney nearly 100 pages of information.

This year, Johnson pleaded no contest in Franklin District Court to two counts of violating the “public officials barred from certain private dealings” law for purchasing the two lots from the town while he was treasurer. He was fined $1,200.

Johnson, who lives across the road from the property, also resigned as treasurer. He and other town officials maintained that the purchase had been in the public interest because of his commitment to preserve the property and that taxes would be paid on it. He paid $7,000 for the two 1 1/2-acre lots, which were assessed at a combined value of $44,000 in 2019.