BRENTWOOD — The chairman of the Rockingham County commissioners initially defended his practice of parking in a handicapped spot outside the county jail even though he’s not disabled and doesn’t have trouble walking.
But within hours of an interview Tuesday with a Union Leader reporter, Kevin St. James said in hindsight that he should not have parked in the spot.
St. James said jail superintendent Steve Church had told him several years ago that he could park in any of the four spots outside a door to the booking area in the jail’s lower level; the spaces are generally used by official vehicles. One of those spaces is marked for handicapped drivers only.
In addition to his role as a county commissioner, St. James has been a bail commissioner for 12 years.
A photograph showing his GMC Acadia with his “CO-MISH” vanity plate parked in a handicapped spot was recently obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“I was told, ‘Don’t worry about the parking. Park anywhere you can,’” St. James said, adding that police cruisers and sheriff’s deputy vehicles have also parked there.
Emergency vehicles are exempt from the handicapped parking law, but Rockingham County Sheriff Chuck Massahos said “state law doesn’t exempt bail commissioners or county people.”
Massahos said cruisers will occasionally park in the handicapped spot to pick up or drop off inmates or for other official police business.
“I hold all my deputies accountable on the way they handle their vehicle and how they park their vehicle,” he said.
St. James insists that no one has ever complained to him about parking in the handicapped spot and that he believes the person who took the photograph is playing politics.
“As commissioners we’ve been in disagreements with the sheriff’s office and this reeks of political smearing,” said St. James, a Kingston resident and former Republican state representative.
Church said St. James has parked in the spot while acting as a bail commissioner and that most jail visitors don’t use those spaces because they park in the main parking lot.”
“Was he parked in a handicapped spot? Absolutely. Was he parked there because of malicious intent because Kevin is a county commissioner? Not even close,” Church said.
Church said he believes that if the sheriff’s office considered abuse of the handicapped space as an ongoing problem, neither the sheriff nor his deputies would be “shy about enforcing” the law.
“County politics, that’s what you’re talking about,” he added.
Church said he will look into whether the handicapped parking sign should be removed.
Massahos said he doesn’t know who took the photo, but he’s aware that St. James has parked in the handicapped space before.
“We’ve known that he has parked in that handicapped spot. It is the truth that we don’t get along with all the county commissioners, but if it was a smear campaign we would have written him a ticket for it,” Massahos said.
The bottom line, he said, is that St. James shouldn’t be parking in the handicapped spot. Handicapped parking violations carry a minimum $250 fine.