Freedom — September 28, 2006 — Freedom selectmen voted Monday night not to remove Theresa Swanick from her position on Freedom Conservation Commission.
More than 50 people attended the public hearing on Swanick’s removal from the commission at Freedom Town Hall Monday night. Selectmen did not allow public comments at the hearing, but each stated their position on why they had initially decided to remove Swanick, and what their current position on the matter was, before voting 2-1 not to remove her. Selectmen Les Babb and Donna Cupka voted to keep Swanick on the commission. Selectman Jim Breslin voted for her removal.
Following the decision, Swanick’s attorney Deborah Fauver said, “We’re delighted with the decision. It was the right result. Now the town can get on to the business of Trout Pond.”
She also said she would encourage all the people to stay involved in the management of the land.
Babb, the chairman of the board, said because so much of the matter had been made public, selectmen felt it was necessary to hold the public hearing to discuss it. Babb gave a long statement, explaining that selectmen had initially wanted to remove Swanick based on a document she created summarizing the town stewardship plan and handing it out at a meeting of the Freedom Forest Advisory Committee, which he said “We felt was an unauthorized distribution.” In the document, Swanick did not say that the selectmen have the final authority for managing the forest, as stated in the Stewardship Plan.
“In getting into all this, there are conflicting thoughts about the management plan,” he said, and attorney Susan Slack, of the N.H. Municipal Association, had provided a legal opinion that authority for management of the forest rests with the conservation commission not the selectmen.
“Theresa had that information before her when she did her training document. She didn’t know all the background,” he said.
Babb said the plan to have the selectmen be the final authority for the forest was not in any way an 11th hour thing, but was included in planning from early on in the process of creating a town forest.
In newspaper articles on the issue, Babb said, “There were a couple of lost points. There are easements that govern the land. The easement holder reviewed and accepted the stewardship plan as written.”
In addition, selectmen are the ones who signed the easement on the property and selectmen have the authority in town to set the tax rate and authorize spending. If the selectmen were not to have final authority over management of the forest, he said, they would be in a position where money would be spent on the forest and they would have no authority over it.
“There was a lot everyone wanted to get out of it,” Babb said, adding that the town was supposed to get 200 acres of municipal land there, which it did not get.
“The forest is still a great gift to this town. We can’t overshadow what it is as we move forward,” he said.
Babb said he has tried to look for the root of the problem as controversy over management of the land has grown. “I don’t understand why we can’t work through it,” he said, but suggested controversy over allowing all-terrain vehicles on the land might be the problem, and he offered his opinion on whether that would be possible.
Babb said he has put hundreds of hours into understanding the stewardship plan and it is his opinion, based on soil types, plant life, delineated wetlands, animal habitats and wording about “low impact” uses, that the ATVs would be permissible, but only in a very limited area.
“It was my conclusion that ATVs would be granted permission if they proposed a pass-through trail that went along the west and northerly boundary. I thought it would pass the muster of the document and the affiliated parties.”
Selectman Jim Breslin noted that Swanick is a trained attorney and said he did not believe that the summary she prepared was a “training document” for the committee. “It was not a draft. It was a position paper,” he said. “I feel the ultimate authority rests with the town. That element was missing and a different position was taken.”
“I felt the board had the right on behalf of the people to make the final decisions. I believe it is correct to have the ultimate authority,” he said.
Breslin said he believes the ATV club that came before the forest advisory committee has not been given a fair hearing, but he said he is not championing the cause of ATV use on the land. “I’m championing anyone’s right to come before the committee with a proposal. Those people have a right to fair and prompt hearing of that request. I’m disturbed at the number of false starts and delays.”
Selectman Donna Cupka said she believed Swanick’s ability to have a fair public hearing has been tainted by mailings by Friends of Trout Pond, various emails and newspaper articles.
Cupka read a prepared statement, saying, “When Ms. Swanick handed out her document titled Freedom Town Forest-Stewardship Plan Summary, I believed she worked alone on this project. As I have come to find out, she was requested to do a summary of the plan. It was also very unfortunate that Ms. Swanick acted upon a legal opinion when she left out the first line of the managing entity paragraph as stated in the Stewardship plan, without first consulting with the board of selectmen regarding this matter, only to be compounded by handing out this document at a public meeting. However, with all that said, it is because I do not feel Ms. Swanick acted alone that I cannot support her removal from the Conservation Commission.”
She concluded, “I trust in the future that Ms. Swanick will work with her committee members and the Board of Selectmen to help insure that all of our actions are in the town’s best interest. I look forward to working with both the FCC and the FAC regarding the team management effort it is going to take to keep the Freedom town Forest a multi-recreational destination for all the citizens of Freedom.”
Cupka then moved to withdraw the vote to remove Swanick from the commission. After the motion passed, 2-1, selectmen adjourned the meeting.
Fauver asked to comment publicly, thanking the selectmen for their decision and saying she wanted to stress to selectmen the importance of having quality volunteers in the town.
“I want to encourage everyone to stick with it at this point,” she said.