Sentinel Reports on Open Container Hearing

Thanks to the Keene Sentinel’s Kyle Jarvis for this piece on last night’s committee meeting and the discussion outside:

A challenge to the city’s open alcohol container ordinance by a member of the libertarian Free Keene group didn’t cause any action, but did produce lots of dialogue Wednesday night.

Much of that discussion happened outside City Hall, between Free Keene members and members of a new group started on Facebook, Free Keene from the Free Keene Stigma, before a City Council committee meeting.

The Facebook group’s members say they want to combat Free Keene tactics, which the group deems ineffective and harmful to the city’s image.

Members of the Free Keene group staged drinking games during two City Council meetings earlier this month.

At the first meeting, two members of the group were arrested during the meeting and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to allow police to inspect whether their beverages were alcoholic.

Inside City Hall Wednesday, the council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee discussed a letter submitted by Free Keene member Heika M. Courser, asking the council to consider overturning the open container ordinance.

The ordinance states that no person shall carry or be in possession of an open container, made of any material, containing alcohol on any public way in the city.

“As an adult, I feel we should be able to make our own decisions on public property, property that we all collectively own,” said Courser in the letter. “It is unfair to tell a person of legal age that they may not enjoy a beer while watching a sporting event in a public park. It is unfair that I cannot quench my thirst on a nice summer day with a beer that I bought while walking home from the store. As adults, we should be allowed to make our own decisions, as long as it is not hurting anybody.”

Courser said after the meeting she felt there was little chance the committee would overturn the ordinance, but it appeared they were sympathetic to her cause.

“Thirty years ago I’d have probably been right out there with you guys,” said Councilor Terry M. Clark during the meeting. “I applaud your idealism … but as you get older, you discover things about yourself and about other people. I’m not as responsible after three or four drinks as I am right now, that’s just the reality of life.”

From the audience, resident and former councilor Frederick B. Parsells told the committee he agrees with Courser, to an extent.

“I do believe that responsible individuals should be allowed to drink in public,” Parsells said. “But the unintended consequences of irresponsible people will happen.”

Due to “public urination, fighting, littering, and otherwise disorderly behavior,” merchants, shoppers and residents downtown would be victims if the ordinance were reversed, Parsells said.

Clark and Parsells referred to the 1970s, before Keene had an open container law.

“Behavior in certain areas of the city at that time was not what you’d expect of adults,” Clark said. “I think this was the main reason the council passed the ordinance.”

Parsells, a former Keene police officer, agreed.

“I witnessed those behaviors 30 years ago, and it will happen again (if the ordinance is overturned),” he said.

Free Keene member Sam Miller, who goes by Sam Dodson, questioned whether comparing modern-day issues to those of 30 years ago was appropriate.

“We live in a world today that’s a lot different than it was in the ’70s,” he said. “For example, everyone today has a cell phone with a camera. If you see someone urinating in public, you pull it out and record them and post it on the Internet … that’s how you stop it.”

The fact that most people have cell phones now also makes it easier for concerned residents to call the police when they see something out of line, Miller said.

The committee voted unanimously to file Courser’s letter under “informational,” which means it’ll be kept on file.

But committee members also thanked Courser and those in attendance for engaging in healthy dialogue.

“Thank you, Heika, for bringing this to committee,” said Pamela R. Slack, chairwoman of the committee. “I’ve admired the way you all acted tonight. It was a very respectful discussion.”

Courser said she was both impressed and disappointed by the meeting’s developments.

“I think everyone was very respectful,” she said. “But I feel they already had their minds made up before the meeting.”

Courser said she was “very impressed” by the Free Keene From the Free Keene Stigma Facebook group’s support of her letter.

Respectful discussion was the theme Wednesday night, even as members of the Facebook group demonstrated outside City Hall before the meeting.

“We’re not here to debate politics,” said co-founder Jeffrey M. Petrovitch, 27, of Keene. “We just want to promote positive and effective ways to create change.”

The group held signs expressing support for Courser’s letter as such an example of positive activity.

“Some of the recent tactics of the Free Keene group … we don’t think it’s good for the community’s image, and it hurts your cause,” said the Facebook group’s other founder, Annie F. Callaway, 19, of Keene.

Miller said his group’s more positive actions, such as writing letters to police when Free Keene members feel officers have done a good job, don’t garner the sort of coverage the group seeks in order to get its message out.

Kyle Jarvis can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1433, or

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