Concord Board Of Ethics Dismisses Most Complaints Against Councilors, Others

CONCORD, NH — Despite clear evidence of rules and charter violations already in the public realm, Concord’s Board of Ethics voted to dismiss requests for violation public hearings filed by three city residents against two city councilors and two volunteer board members, primarily due to lack of evidence submitted by complainants.

The board, five members, three who attended in person and two remotely, met on Monday to discuss five complaints against Ward 5 City Councilor Stacey Brown, one complaint against Ward 8 City Councilor Ali Sekou, one complaint against former Ward 2 City Councilor Erle Pierce who sits on the planning board, and two complaints against Gregory Bakos, the chairman of the Public Transportation Subcommittee (TPAC).

In about an hour, the board chose to hold future public hearings against Brown and Bakos while dismissing all the others — revealing several loopholes and transparency issues with city council rules and the city’s charter.

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John Sullivan, the chairman of the board, presented two cases, while Tenley Callaghan, another board member, presented two others.

Sullivan reviewed the rules and procedures of the committee, providing “a preliminary review” of the complaints, and then, members would decide if there should be public hearings. He said the only way the board could dismiss complaints was to have a unanimous vote to dismiss. A single vote for a public hearing would ensure a public hearing.

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Sullivan said the clerk provided the complaints and responses to the members, and they could accept public testimony if they agreed to hear it — something they did not do during the meeting despite several of the aggrieved parties in attendance.

“It’s important to understand,” Sullivan said, “if we get to a public hearing stage, then the rules go on to say there are seven other outcomes.”

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Complaint Against Sekou Dismissed

Sullivan suggested reviewing each complaint separately and deciding on them, one by one, and began reviewing the complaint against Sekou first, submitted by Dennis Soucy, a former candidate for the Ward 8 seat.

Soucy requested a hearing suggesting the board needed to “answer questions in an open hearing” with elected officials and the public to “clear the air and tell the truth or step down” about a lawsuit filed in superior court in October 2023 by the IQRA Islamic Society of Greater Concord, which Sekou is the president of, against the city for approving dozens of apartments at the former First Church on North Main Street. The lawsuit, which was recently dropped, was essentially legal blackmail against the developers for not agreeing to allow the mosque to use church property for parking and then, forcing the developers to sell the land as part of an agreement by the mosque to drop the lawsuit against the city so the project could be built.

In April, Sekou recused himself from a vote on an extension of a 79E tax break exemption for the developer but did not say why, as required by Article 1-6-4 of the city code of ethics, which states councilors “shall disclose the reason for the conflict of interest prior to the public body’s discussion on the matter, or if discussion has occurred, then as soon as the conflict becomes known to the officer or official.” The reason for the delay was due to the lawsuit.

Before Sullivan reviewed the complaint, Danielle Pacik, the city’s legal counsel and an ex-officio member, recused herself from the hearing due to an email Sekou included in his response to the complaint.

Sekou cited a response by Pacik to Concord NH Patch in April inquiring about the city rule. She pointed to Section 6B, which ensures the mayor and councilors have no questions about the recusal even though the recusal is also about the public, the press, and those attending meetings or watching them online, too, knowing and understanding the recusal.

Pacik did not reply to an email a few days later citing Article 1-6, showing the disclosure requirement. At post time, it is unknown how Sekou obtained an email to Pacik from a media outlet when legal counsel for the city has consistently stated they do not represent city councilors.

In his response, Sekou claimed councilors “forgetting to state the reason ‘why’ is common practice at meetings” — an inaccurate statement to anyone who watches or attends meetings and hears Brown regularly recusing herself from issues involving the police department, for example. He claimed he was being targeted “despite the informality and inconsistency of this recusal practice.”

Sullivan called Soucy’s request “generic,” saying it did not cite a specific vote or specific action with the focus on his concern. He acknowledged Sekou’s admission to not following the rule but said Soucy’s inquiry was “thin on allegations,” adding, “That’s troubling to me.” Sullivan said, it appeared Sekou’s non-disclosure was about what he was “involved with” and had been disclosed previously. No one previously, he said, had raised issues.

Sullivan’s reading of the rule was that it did not state the disclosure was needed during the meeting or at “that moment or time.” If there were other meetings, he said, he seemed there was no confusion, in this instance, and suggested dismissing the complaint.

Steve Shurtleff, a former city councilor, agreed, pointing to Soucy’s comment in the complaint that people were innocent until proven guilty, but there was no specific charge.

Marcia Moran, another member, agreed and said the public needed to be made aware that complaints needed to be substantiated with specific dates, times, and places of the violation. She added that she was curious about a statement Sekou made about being given the chance to correct his nondisclosure but choosing not to.

“Which, I think, is of interest,” she said. “But I don’t think we have enough going on with this complaint.”

James Rosenberg agreed with all the points and said it was “hard to know” if there were larger concerns but, as a general observation, elected officials should be disclosing reasons for recusal.

Tenley Callaghan, another member, also agreed with the points.

“There’s simply not enough there,” she said.

The vote was 5-0 to dismiss — despite an admission by Sekou that he did not disclose the reason for the recusal, as required.

4 Complaints Dropped Against Brown

The members moved on to the five complaints against Brown and dismissed four.

Tyler Savage, a resident of her ward, called for disciplinary action against her for refusing to vote on a street closure memo that involved police details due to her husband working for the department. He also said she had replied to other councilors by email and the mayor, violating the state’s open meeting law even though she was warned to stop. Brown, Savage said, also identified herself as a councilor at public meetings, including a ZBA meeting last year concerning a Lake Street parcel, and, two years ago, she voted on a donation to the library by her employer.

Sullivan said, taking the issues in reverse order, he believed the board had “limited authority” but needed to report to the council, and they could “take or leave” their recommendations. He questioned whether the donation issue should be considered not because it was not a violation but because it was from two years ago or similar time periods and “beyond our jurisdiction.” Sullivan also offered “similar concerns” to the ZBA meeting issue, which was from February 2023 since the council was elected months after the meeting and was from a prior time period. He called the open meeting law concerns “completely outside of our jurisdiction,” which is administered by the superior court and state ombudsman, and he did not believe there was anything in the rules allowing them to “monitor that statute” — even though councilors take an oath of office to obey the laws of the state of New Hampshire.

With the other two complaints, Sullivan pointed to Brown’s response to the board explaining she attended more than 100 meetings during the past two years “in order to stay on top of city business and provide the best representation possible to the Concord Ward 5 constituents.” The ZBA meeting in question was 12 days before changes were made to the ethics ordinance allowing councilors to testify as public citizens, even though that was not what she was doing. Brown had no connection to Lake Street, its residents, or Swenson Granite Works.

The councilor also said Savage did not specifically reference replies to all emails, but the board could review all emails between the mayor and councilors and other councilors. Brown also complained Savage “offered examples … directly lifted from a piece in the Concord Patch,” a news story based on prior public statements and emails by Brown and other documentation.

Sullivan said the allowable exception was if a councilor was an abutter or connected to an issue and was noted in another rule.

“On that matter,” he said, “it seems to me there is disagreement (that is) best resolved by a public hearing.”

Sullivan also agreed there appeared to be an issue with the street closing and police department issue.

“I would be inclined to schedule a public hearing on that,” he said.

Pacik clarified the rules allowed councilors to attend meetings individually but not on behalf of the city council and provided them with a copy of the rule.

Moran said she agreed with the street closure police issue but did not believe Savage provided enough information about the other allegations.

Shurtleff agreed.

Callaghan said she had trouble hearing and asked for clarification. Later, she agreed to skip the older items and have a hearing, at least on the street closure police issue.

Rosenberg said he did not understand Brown’s response, calling it too short.

After thinking about it, Sullivan said he thought the street closure police issue was the only one he would like to move forward on.

The board voted to hold a public hearing on that single issue.

While residents can file complaints about open meeting law violations in superior court and with the ombudsman, most cases that come before the court or hearing with the ombudsman deal with rejection of record requests, not meetings by email.

Jim Kennedy, the city’s former legal counsel who is now a judge, also warned councilors to refrain from replying to all councilors because that action could violate state law.

When councilors are sworn in every two years, they are also required to uphold the laws of the state of New Hampshire as part of their role.

The question now becomes this: Who will force the councilors not to violate state laws if the board of ethics refuses to review a clearly illegal act?

Pierce Complaint Quickly Dismissed

The complaint against Pierce was brought by former Ward 2 City Councilor Allan Herschlag, who noted, during a March 20 planning board meeting, that Pierce did not recuse himself or state why he had a conflict.

Callaghan said Pierce provided “a wealth of information about his past practices” and offered “a well-established course” of recusing himself from any issue with the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, where he serves or anything connected to it involving the planning board.

In his response, unlike Brown and Sekou, who made excuses or deflected blame, he admitted Herschlag was correct in his assertion and said it was “purely unintentional” since he raised his hand to recuse himself after the discussion had begun and was recognized by the chairman of the committee to leave and left immediately.

The chairman, he said, announced the reason for the recusal for him. Pierce provided a link to the video and a timestamp for board members to examine.

She noted Pierce often notifies the board and city “in advance” of meetings so it is on the record and to ensure there was a quorum in attendance.

“I think he follows the spirit of the law (and) follows the letter of the law,” she said.

Rosenberg and Moran agreed, with Moran saying he appeared to always be acting in good faith. Shurtleff, too, said it should be dismissed, and it was, by a 5-0 vote.

Bakos To Get Public Hearing

The board spent most of its time wondering whether to have a public hearing against Bakos.

In his complaint, Herschlag said Bakos was listed as the project manager for the Interstate 93 Bridge Park from a TPAC meeting in February. In the packet, the minutes reflected him adding the park proposal as an item to discuss at a future meeting. Since Bakos was working on the project and leading the TPAC, so he thought it was a conflict.

Five days later, Herschlag amended his complaint.

Bakos said he understood the code of ethics and worked to stay compliant “at all times” and did not violate the code. He said two months before being appointed, his employer received the park feasibility study. Bakos said it was customary at TPAC meetings for members “to share relevant information” about transportation projects, which was what he was doing.

Bakos made no actions or decisions that would affect his financial interest during his time at TPAC. The committee, he added, was “an advisory committee to the city council,” and he was not in any position to take actions or decisions for the council.

“The insinuation of impropriety by Mr. Herschlag is terribly misguided,” he wrote.

Callaghan said Bakos’ point appeared to be he was alerting and advising other committee members about projects on the horizon that he knew about. She said there was no way to connect the dots to any conflict and TPAC appeared to be an advisory board.

Pacik said she worked with public bodies and individual boards to explain conflicts and the right-to-know provisions and would do that, too, in this matter, to make sure updates were made by staff, not Bakos.

Callaghan said all the financial decisions were made in 2023 and the resources were allocated. She wondered about the advisory to the council process.

Shurleff asked if TPAC was involved in awarding contracts, and Pacik said they could provide input, but committees were not involved in contracts; those are done by purchasing managers and staff.

Callaghan said she could see where someone would see a conflict if someone was involved in a project but added, “I don’t think there is any there there.”

Sullivan said while it was clear the council made decisions, he wondered whether, going forward, Bakos should not be participating in the discussion.

Callaghan did not think Bakos did anything wrong but added she could see how quickly it could become a problem. Maybe, instead, the board should dismiss the issue and offer some warning, she said, adding she was struggling with the issue.

Shurtleff said Bakos leading TPAC made the situation more difficult, while Sullivan said he would not vote to dismiss, ensuring there would be a hearing.

Shurtleff said the hearing would at least provide some clarity to commissions and committees and motioned to have one.

Sullivan said scheduling the hearing was not scheduling a firing squad or a letter of reprimand, but it would recommend avoiding this practice.

Moran said since the project had already been funded, she did not think there was a conflict. She was “troubled by” a possible conflict that could arise if there were future funding, but “that’s a different story.” Regarding this charge, “I question whether or not I see a violation.”

After discussion about an amended motion, which was found to be out of order, Moran said she would vote against the hearing. But Sullivan, committed to a hearing, ensured there would be one.

At the end of the meeting, Sekou was seen with Mayor Byron Champlin, shaking hands. Brown, Herschlag, Pierce, Ward 4 City Councilor Karen McNamara, and others were also in attendance.

After the meeting, Champlin said he did not want to offer comment on a myriad of loopholes and public policy problems with the decisions made by the board which appeared in direct conflict with council rules.

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