Stephen Beckert Credit: File photo | Portsmouth Herald

When the Eliot Select Board last month voted to remove Planning Board chairman Steve Beckert from office, members drew on an investigation some eight months in duration that placed under a microscope Beckert, planning assistant Kate Pelletier and Town Manager Dana Lee.

At issue are the concerns of a handful of residents, particularly Michele and Jay Meyer, who have been intensely involved in the Planning Board’s and the town planning department’s public process over a number of years — attending meetings, questioning procedures and decisions, delving into public records and in some cases garnering public support to fight projects.

The Meyers’ actions were viewed by Beckert as that of a couple in “attack mode most of the time,” particularly by 2016 when they developed, in his opinion, “a very nasty attitude” toward him, the board and Pelletier. The Meyers say they are “citizen watchdogs” and their efforts constitute “a persistent attempt to understand how and why things are done as they are.” In their findings, the Select Board called the couple “demanding, but polite, precise and persistent.”

Among findings revealed by the investigation and a subsequent probe by the Portsmouth Herald are:

— Beckert told Lee in December 2016 that he wanted the town to explore filing a protection from harassment complaint against the Meyers. “I’m getting god damn sick and tired of Jay Myer (sic) and his wife making it sound like the Planning Board and the Planning Assistant don’t know what we’re doing. Back them off,” he wrote in an email to Lee, who responded he felt nothing would get the Meyers “off this jihad.” It is a comment Lee regrets making, saying he was using the word to describe a crusade and not an Islamic holy war.

— Following a Board of Appeals meeting last fall, Beckert was overheard as calling Michele Meyer a “b***h” and resident Bob Fisher an “a**hole.” Beckert doesn’t deny it, but said he considered himself a private citizen when he spoke and not a town official, as the comments were made outside of a formal meeting.

— In 2015 and 2016, 21 public hearings were noticed on Planning Board agendas. According to town ordinance, they must be advertised in a newspaper of public record 10 days in advance. Pelletier, who is charged with sending these legal notices, stated publicly she uses the Portsmouth Herald. During that period, only four legal notices were placed in the Herald, according to Herald classified advertisement records.

— In 2017, the Meyers and resident Roseanne Adams questioned if a legal notice was placed in the Herald for an April 4 public hearing. Pelletier, according to minutes of that meeting, said she sent the notice to the Herald March 22 and “has the receipt” from the Herald. Sandra Titus, classified manager and internet coordinator for Seacoast Media Group’s advertising department, said the employee who deals with Pelletier received no communication from Pelletier from Dec. 22, 2016 to April 5, 2017.

— Each applicant is charged $175 so the town can place a legal advertisement in the Herald. Lee will discuss his own analysis of this issue Oct. 12, and is expected to ask the Select Board to consider reimbursing the fee. The issue of public notice will be explored in the second part of this series.

Public participation

Michele Meyer began attending Planning Board meetings regularly in 2014 after the couple was involved in a Board of Appeals matter with an abutting property owner.

“That got me involved in land use and zoning ordinances,” she said. “As we became more knowledgeable, we very naturally reached out to the planning department for a better understanding. We began to regularly attend Planning Board meetings, we began asking questions, we made use of the public comment period and we’d attend public hearings of applications.”

The couple, joined by Adams and Fisher, became involved in several high-profile board cases and actions – including an application by developer Joseph Falzone of Stratham, New Hampshire, to build an elderly housing complex across from Town Hall; a subdivision plan submitted by Dr. William Gilbert for his River Road property; and an ultimately successful effort by the board to increase the number of growth permits, which the Meyers’ opposed.

It was after a BOA hearing on the Gilbert application in September 2016, that the profane exchanges with Beckert took place. “I told them they should be ashamed of themselves” for appealing the Planning Board decision in the matter, said Beckert. “Bob (Fisher) said, ‘You guys didn’t do your job’ and I called him an a**hole.” He said he then called Michele Meyer a “vile b***h”, although Meyer remembers he used the adjective “f***ing.”

Beckert contends he was not speaking in an official capacity. “Once the gavel goes down, you are no more than a private citizen,” he said “A member of the public. As long as you conduct yourself appropriately in public meeting, in my mind you have upheld to town’s code of conduct.”

Adams said during board meetings Beckert became “more and more dismissive. ‘I don’t care what you have to say.’ ‘I’ll take it under advisement.’ And then nothing happens. Pretty much every time that you had a concern, you would get this backlash.”

Meanwhile, Planning Board member Dennis Lentz said it appeared “answers were known before questions were asked. For me as a board member it was irritating. People have a right to ask questions, but when you challenge the answers, that creates some flak. I think members of the board were frustrated by the whole situation.”

Board alternate Christine Bennett saw it differently. “I did not see the Meyers as being threatening. On balance, Steve was not unprofessional but he was not receptive to their questions. He was often annoyed and dismissive.”

Michele Meyer said, “We were finding minutes that were missing, agendas that weren’t filed when they should have been, a lack of legal notices. We have been consistent in asking about this. We were also challenging the practices and procedures of the Planning Board. We feel strongly that the bar is set high for public servants.”

Protection from harassment

Following a Dec. 20, 2016, board meeting, Jay Meyer said Beckert told him he “filed a complaint against you.” Following a Maine Freedom of Access Act request of Lee, the couple found out via multiple emails that Beckert was considering filing a protection from harassment order against them.

“We were shocked,” Michele said. “We felt absolutely clear that if they threatened us with litigation we would go away. We felt strongly that the intent was to violate our First Amendment rights.”

In the email exchanges, which started Dec. 13, Beckert said he doesn’t consider Michele Meyer a “stable person. I feel… threatened with either of them near me.” Lee replied, “I am of the opinion that nothing said to her or her husband will get them off this jihad. They are obsessed with this issue (of public notice) and, in my opinion, becoming overly aggressive toward Kate (and you and the PB).”

Lee in a recent interview said he regrets his choice of the word jihad. “It’s certainly a word I shouldn’t have used. I feel very badly about it.”

Earlier in the year, the Meyers started CC’ing Lee on emails they sent to Pelletier.

“It was the frequency of the emails, it was the increasingly frustrated tone,” Lee said. “It was the persistent nature and the unrelenting nature of it that was a concern. ‘I want it now, now, now.’” Beckert and Pelletier asked him to contact the town’s attorney about possible legal options. “I wasn’t agreeing or not agreeing. But I’m Kate’s supervisor and I want people to feel safe.”

Town counsel Philip Saucier verbally told Lee Beckert could file a protection from harassment case against the Meyers, “but it’s not likely to be granted,” Lee told Beckert in an email. Lee said Saucier told him “public officials don’t get protection from people being assertive. It has to be really egregious before you get any protection. ”

First Amendment attorney Bernard Kubitz, representing the Meyers, said in a subsequent letter to the town that the couple was making “a formal demand upon the town of Eliot and its acting municipal officers to cease and desist” from any actions that impinged on their free speech rights under the U.S. and Maine constitutions – or the town could face legal action.

Michele Meyer read a two-page document into the record at the Select Board’s Dec. 22, 2016, meeting, detailing the situation from the couple’s perspective. It was the first time the board knew of issue, said Vice Chairman Robert Pomerleau. “I think initially we found it a little bit stunning,” he said.

Selectmen investigate

On Jan. 26, the board asked the Meyers to attend an executive session to further explain Michele’s comments that included complaints about Lee and Pelletier. From that time on, Beckert refused to be involved in the board’s proceedings including a formal hearing in August. Letters sent by regular and certified mail were returned unopened. Requests for him to attend executive sessions were refused. He also declined to provide statements to a fact-finder hired by the town to delve into the issue.

He said his rights had been violated from the start because he was not present at that first session. “I told them if I participate in any meetings after that first executive session, I would be participating in a tainted process that violated my rights,” Beckert said.

Pomerleau said from January until the formal hearing in August, selectmen were fact-finding, trying to ascertain if there were enough substance to move forward with Beckert’s removal. Lee and Pelletier were also discussed.

“We needed to protect everyone’s rights and we needed to examine everyone’s complaints,” he said. “Three people were implicated and that gets into complexity. Each person doesn’t have the right to hear complaints about the others.”

Beckert contacted Maine Public Access Ombudsman Brenda Kielty, saying he considered the board’s Sept. 14 decision to remove him from office “illegal.” Kielty disagreed, stating “the executive session of Jan. 26 was followed by more than seven months of consideration and action by the Select Board … including notice to you of a hearing on the matter and a formal hearing. It is my understanding that you … refused to participate, made no attempt to present your version of events and made no other legal objections to the proceedings.”

The Jan. 26 session, she said, involved “following up on these complaints” by the Meyers. She said the attorney general’s office will not represent Beckert in any action he may make against the town for violation of state law.

“Steve’s interpretation was so narrow it was impossible,” Pomerleau said. “There’s no doubt there’s another side to the story that wasn’t heard. Rarely is one side completely accurate. We made every effort to involve him. It may have been beneficial for him to appear, but he didn’t.”

Selectman Richard Donhauser agreed. “I feel sad for Mr. Beckert. He’s been in town service for a number of years,” he said. “However, he made some bad judgments based on the testimony I heard. The board didn’t all agree 100 percent on the outcome. Some of us acquiesced, some felt strongly in favor. But in the end we all agreed it was appropriate based on what we heard.”

Pomerleau said he hopes things go smoothly now that Beckert is off the board. The complaint against Beckert, he said, “was not so much an issue of substance and quality, it was style and behavior. I have nothing but admiration for the Planning Board, and I have grave concerns with how this whole thing has impacted them. I think it has put them under a great deal of stress.”

The Meyers say the past eight months for them have been “a nightmare scenario no one should ever have to fear or experience: falsely accused, legally and professionally imperiled, struggling to clear our names and restore our reputations.” They said they feel vindicated by the Select Board’s actions to remove Beckert. “We commend them for doing a thorough investigation,” they stated. “What they decided to do was clearly difficult for each and every one of them.”

Beckert has 30 days to appeal the Select Board’s decision. He said this past week he has not decided whether he will do so.