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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Guide to the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, Part 2: What went wrong?

When the CCA started out as the umbrella for opponents to Jim Mageau’s reign on the Charlestown Town Council (2006-2008), they were a pretty diverse movement. Old Yankees, newcomers, environmentalists and conservationists, hardcore Republicans and life-long Democrats, independents, yuppies, progressives, Shoreline Coalition leaders and average citizens came together to try to stop Mageau from making Charlestown a laughing-stock, if not actually remove him from office.

I almost joined myself, but didn’t because so many CCA leaders came from of the RI Statewide Coalition crowd. RISC’s advocacy for the out-of-state millionaire absentee property owners made their vision for Charlestown was just as unpalatable as Mageau’s antics. But there were many good and decent people in the early CCA and they did this town a great service by forcing Mageau into involuntary political exile.

Shortly after the 2008 election where the CCA Town Council slate thumped Mageau and pushed him to the margins, the CCA underwent a bloody civil war. The trigger was the wind turbine project that we all now know as Whalerock.

The 2009-2010 CCA Town Council members became enthusiastic boosters of the Whalerock project, seeing economic and environmental benefits to having a pair of industrial sized turbines on top of the moraine north of Route 1.

But the CCA-controlled Planning Commission was dominated by the CCA’s conservationist wing. Their vision of Charlestown is to make Charlestown more like the way it was in the 1700s and they routinely oppose anything big or modern looking.

In early 2009, only months after the CCA assumed total control of the town, it was torn apart fighting over Whalerock. The CCA Town Council members did all they could to fast-track Whalerock while the CCA Planning Commission members did all they could to kill it.

The argument grew in scope. It was no longer a dispute over a project, but over who holds the power in Charlestown – the Town Council or the Planning Commission? Normally, and by law, this would be a silly question. Of course, the Town Council is the final authority and the Planning Commission is advisory.

But by this point, lots of stories leaked out about the way Ruth Platner and the Planning Commission had grabbed power and authority. Arbitrary conditions were imposed on applicants. The Commission took on enforcement powers it did not have, levying fines on property owners who displeased (among the hateful acts was laying down asphalt).

Platner presumed the authority to kill affordable housing projects because they would attract cat-owning senior citizens.

She has often played the role of Family Planning Commissar, using her position to kill projects that might attract families with children. Because of her repeated use of an economic test on proposed affordable housing – how many Chariho students might such housing impose on town – I wonder if she plans to introduce a means test on the rest of us.

Her husband Cliff Vanover has campaigned for Charlestown to acquire more and more open space (even though almost half of Charlestown is presently tax exempt), arguing that expanding open space increases our tax base somehow.

Combine Platner’s animus against children and senior citizens with Vanover’s campaign for more open space and what do you get? Perhaps a campaign to make each household in town crack out their birth certificates and their financial statements. If you’re not between the ages of 18 and 55, and aren’t considered an asset to the town (by Platner’s standards), you fail. Your home is seized, bull-dozed and added to our open space stock.

But I digress, but actually only a little. The CCA civil war was fought over power, but also over ideology. Development versus anti-development. As the civil war continued over the weeks, internal CCA sentiment shifted toward the staunch conservationists on the Planning Commission. Increasingly, the CCA Town Council members were branded as heretics who had strayed from CCA’s true path.

This rift could not be reconciled. So the CCA ran a new slate of Town Council candidates in 2010 to depose the CCA 2008 slate of candidates. As I reported earlier, the result was a split decision where the balance of power between the CCA loyalists and the CCA excommunicants hangs on Lisa DiBello’s vote.

But one upshot of the internal rift within CCA was a new obsession with secrecy. The CCA’s former casual openness has been replaced by a clamped down, need-to-know posture. Only rarely now do CCA leaders identify themselves publicly. For instance, when was the last time you heard any public utterance from the CCA President Kallie Jurgens?

Sure, I know she’s a Florida resident, but there was a time when she wasn’t bashful about speaking and writing publicly. In a Westerly Sun letter last January, Jurgens tried, without success, to explain away the CCA’s delay in disclosure of the flurry of last-minute campaign spending. That spending blitz may have swamped the opposition and won Council seats for Tom Gentz and Dan Slattery. In that same letter, Jurgens also warned the town Democratic Committee not to engage in “class war” by daring to criticize the CCA.

Once, at the crest of its popular campaign to oust Jim Mageau, the CCA campaigned for good government, transparency, openness and civility. Now, the CCA has devolved into a secret society and functions as Charlestown's shadow government. I read the CCA’s e-mails and the anonymous voices of greed they publish, small-minded people who put their narrow interests above all else. As we continue with this series on the CCA, we’ll take a hard look at the CCA’s angry faceless chorus of voices.

Author: Will Collette