MANCHESTER — Public safety officials and several aldermen expressed strong support at a special hearing Wednesday for restricting the public from using Bronstein Park during school hours, despite concerns raised about the violation of constitutional rights.
The Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Land and Buildings Committee convened the meeting after Mayor Ted Gatsas moved to enforce a no-trespassing order in response to last month’s surge in emergency calls linked to the smoking of the synthetic marijuana product “spice.” A considerable number of the ambulance calls occurred in the vicinity of Bronstein Park, which is located across the street from Central High and is used by the school for gym and band activities, as well as students who pass through on their way to and from campus.
The park was officially designated for the use of Central in the late 1960s, and on this basis the police have invoked a city ordinance that bars trespassing on school grounds during school hours.
The meeting was called by Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau, who criticized the abrupt nature of the no-trespassing order, prior to review by the aldermen.
Corriveau, who is an attorney by profession, said the city needed “a comprehensive policy on the use of Bronstein Park that can best meet the needs of citizens and protect the Constitution.”
The hearing, which lasted more than two hours, featured testimony from the city’s police and fire chiefs, the district superintendent, as well as the staff attorney for the N.H. Civil Liberties Union.
Detective Kim Barbee, Central’s school resource officer, told the committee that the element that congregated at Bronstein posed regular safety concerns for students, and that these have intensified with the surge in spice abuse.
“They’ve called inappropriate comments to girls, and the boys, of a sexual nature,” she said. “It’s a huge problem. Central High School is a very large place ... We wouldn’t allow this on school grounds, in the halls. If we’re going to use the park, it needs to be a safe place.”
Chris Stawacz, the regional manager for AMR, the city’s emergency ambulance company, told the committee that the problem of public overdoses, on spice and other drugs, had reached “epidemic” proportions, and that nearly half the calls during the recent surge in spice incidents occurred in the vicinity of the park.
The hearing grew heated at one point, when Police Chief David Mara alleged that Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur — who has criticized the mayor’s and police department’s response to the spice problem as heavy handed — had earlier in the day handed out business cards to people in the park and urged them to contact him if police tried to get them to leave the park.
Assistant Chief Nick Willard said officers did not arrest or cite anyone in the park on Wednesday, but rather handed out fliers informing them of the new no-trespassing policy. “Here our officers are trying to build rapport with people int the park,” he said.
Levasseur said he did not hand out his card as an attorney but as an alderman. “I wanted to talk to them personally, that’s the kind of constituent service, the kind of alderman I am.”
Later, Levasseur praised the approach the police took, focusing on education rather than citing people, but faulted the chief for not telling him how the ban would be enforced.
Gilles Bissonnette of the NHCLU told the committee that he understood the concerns about the severity of the drug problem and student safety, but he said his organization had “serious concerns” about the public ban.”This could run afoul of the First Amendment,” he said. “The rule places Bronstein Park off limits to everyone because of the behavior of a few.”
But a majority on the committee expressed the view that the safety of students was paramount.
“I don’t get elected to make decisions based on whether it will result in a lawsuit or not,” said Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, the chairman of the committee.
The committee, with the exception of Corriveau, voted to support a motion to continue the no-trespassing order indefinitely.