Bennington ZBA votes to censure member after bullet incident

  • Bennington Zoning Board of Adjustment members vote to censor fellow member Sam Cohen after he made remarks to an applicant representing Dollar General that were taken as threatening. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • The Bennington Zoning Board of Adjustments postpones a hearing regarding a sign variance for a proposed Dollar General store that could be built along Route 202. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Friday, August 11, 2017 10:10AM

The Bennington Zoning Board of Adjustment members voted to censure one of its members during a meeting Monday evening.

The action came after Carolyn Parker, a consultant representing Dollar General, lodged a complaint with the town’s police chief after a July 17 hearing, stating that she felt threatened by comments and actions made by Sam Cohen during the proceeding.

In the complaint, Parker wrote at one point during the meeting Cohen took two bullets out and told her, “this is what I tell people from Massachusetts — take two of these and call me in the morning.”

In a letter that was attached to the ZBA’s Aug. 7 meeting minutes, Cohen said the bullets were actually two cartridges he pulled from a spare pistol magazine he was carrying at the time. He said the comment and actions were meant as a joke that he took from an episode of the TV series “M.A.S.H.”, where a character takes two golf balls out of his pocket, hands them to someone, and says, “take two of these and call me in the morning.”

“I don’t play golf, but I’ve done it with both Life Savers and pistol ammunition,” Cohen wrote. He calls the gag the “aspirin joke.”

Cohen said he didn’t have Life Savers at the hearing, so he used the cartridges instead in response to a comment Parker made about feeling tired and frustrated that she had driven from Massachusetts only to have the board push the matter back until September.

Cohen said he didn’t preface the joke by saying, “this is what I tell people from Massachusetts” as Parker stated in the complaint.

“Earlier I made my usual joke about the ‘People’s Republic of Massachusetts,’ but her conflating that with the aspirin joke — making it a threat — is either a product of her (Parker’s) imagination or a purposeful lie,” Cohen wrote.

His letter goes on to say that misrepresenting a joke is “serious business.” Cohen said others at the meeting “will confirm that I didn’t say what she wrote.”

But the three board members — Clough, Vice Chair Melissa Clark, and Anthony Parisi — distanced themselves from Cohen’s comments on Monday night. They unanimously voted on four separate items that called Cohen’s comments inappropriate and weren’t reflective of the views or position of the board as a whole.

Cohen walked into the meeting about 15 minutes late, and was only able to vote on the fourth item on the list, which stated, “his comments and actions regarding bullets was inappropriate and could be perceived as threatening.” The board voted 3 yay, 1 nay on the item — Cohen being the lone dissenting vote.

The board’s decision was met with resistance on Cohen’s part who tried to defend himself throughout the process.

“So the prisoner is condemned without a chance for defense?” Cohen said.

Clough said he didn’t want to hear it though.

“You did something wrong, you just have to accept it and move on,” Clough said at one point during the meeting.

Clough said this wasn’t an isolated incident either.

“I have seen you do it a dozen times prior to the other night,” he said. “So it’s a question of you are going to accept it and continue to do it that way. Or you are going to accept it and say, ‘OK, maybe I should behave a little differently, maybe I should just smile and wave.’”

Clough said he hopes the comments and behavior stop after this incident.

“I mean honestly Sam, I’m hoping this never happens again,” Clough said.

“So what are you going to cut my salary?” Cohen said in retort alluding to the fact that board members are not paid to hold the post.

Clough joked that he’s going to make Cohen start paying to attend the meetings.

At the end of the meeting, Clough told Cohen he should recuse himself from anything having to do with Dollar General in the future.

“Why?” Cohen asked.

Clough said it’s a legal issue, which may give someone the grounds to sue if they don’t like the outcome of the board’s decision.

“I have nothing against Dollar General I have nothing against Carolyn Parker,” Cohen said.

Not long after Cohen laid a bunch of $100 bills on the table and wagered a bet with anyone in the room, saying he would hand the cash over if Parker brings a suit forward.

No one took him up on the offer.

After the meeting, Clough said he would like Cohen to recuse himself from all things Dollar General related in the future but doesn’t know if he can force the issue.

“That’s the intent,” Clough said about Cohen recusing himself. “Unfortunately there is no mechanism for me to prevent him from showing up so I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Another hearing regarding the matter is scheduled to take place on Monday, Sept. 18.