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Saturday, May 14, 2011

OMG! Check out this OMA complaint

"The Secret Meeting" by Ilya Repin (1883)
Continuing our coverage of the hot issues from last Monday’s Town Council meeting, one of the least discussed and potentially most explosive issues was an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint (“Areglado v. Charlestown Town Council”) filed by neighbors opposed to Larry LeBlanc’s Whalerock wind turbine proposal against the Republican majority in the 2008-2010 Council.

The issues are a bit complicated and the plot twists can be challenging, so please be patient.

Former Council members Candi Dunn and Forrester Safford (both defeated for re-election) and present Council member Gregg Avedisian are charged with violating the law when they met with developer Larry LeBlanc at a 2009 URI conference on wind energy. The complaint alleges these three council members urged LeBlanc to develop what came to be known as the Whalerock project and assured him of their support.

The complaint asserts these three members constituted a quorum and their alleged meeting with LeBlanc constituted a town council meeting that was “not advertised and not open to the public.” URI attendance records show Avedisian, Dunn, Safford – and Larry LeBlanc were at the conference.

The complaint also cites Zoning Commission minutes for January 18, 2009. Those minutes show Whalerock’s attorney, Nick Gorham, testifying that “In 2009 there was a seminar at URI on wind energy.  Three members of the former Town Council were there and suggested to the owner that this would be a good idea for his property.  The owner filed an application and a partnership with the Town.” 

Other records attached to the complaint show that immediately after the conference, these members promoted and supported LeBlanc’s wind energy proposal. This led to a daisy chain of events with major political consequences for Charlestown.

All three of these council members, along with Marjorie Frank and Richard Hosp, were the Charlestown Citizens Alliance slate to depose Jim Mageau and anyone who might run with him in the 2008 Town Council election. This slate crushed Mageau and swept into office for the 2009-2010 term, fĂȘted by a jubilant CCA.

But just weeks later, after that early spring 2009 URI conference, things went very bad, very quickly. Despite support from the three Republican/CCA Council members, LeBlanc’s wind turbine proposal ran into a buzz saw at the Planning Commission. As I have frequently written, the rock-ribbed CCA stalwarts on the Planning Commission are unabashedly hostile to any project that doesn’t look like it belongs in colonial times.

Despite harsh opposition from the Planning Commission, the Town Council stuck to its support for LeBlanc and passed an ordinance exempting wind turbines from the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction. This provoked a bloody rift within CCA. The CCA essentially excommunicated the Town Council members they had campaigned to elect not less than a year before.

Going into the 2010 campaign, the CCA ran a new slate of staunch CCA loyalists as candidates to oust the four now-excommunicated Council members who ran for re-election (Richard Hosp chose to walk away from this mess).

The 2010 election between the New CCA Council candidates and the Old CCA Council candidates ended up a split decision – two of the New CCA candidates (Tom Gentz and Dan Slattery) won, while Cliff Vanover lost. Two of the Old CCA candidates (Gregg Avedisian and Marge Frank) won while two (Forrester Safford and Candi Dunn) were ousted.

The split decision swung in favor of the New CCA when wild card Council winner Lisa DiBello aligned with the New CCA. Since she subsequently filed legal action against Avedisian (as well as Safford, Dunn and others), her alignment with the New CCA makes some sense.

As for the merits of the Open Meetings complaint, the lawyers will sort that out. After brief and vague discussion, the Council directed Town Solicitor Peter Ruggerio to respond to the Attorney General's office on the complaint.

However, there are many similarities between this complaint and the one filed by the CCA against Jim Mageau and the other two Council members who constituted the Council majority in the 2006-2008 term.

In Vanover v. Charlestown Town Council, the Attorney General ruled a private meeting Mageau, Bruce Picard and John Craig held to recruit John Craven as Town Solicitor constituted a Town Council meeting not advertised or open to the public, violating the state Open Meetings Law. This new case may go the same way.

Finally, there was a seemingly unrelated item toward the end of a very long meeting - the appointment of  four new volunteer members to the Charter Revision Advisory Board.

Since the hour was late, Council Prez Gentz pushed to approve the four as a group. Council member Avedisian objected, insisting these appointments be taken one-by-one, because, he said, “I plan to vote against two of them.” And indeed he did cast the only no votes against Maureen Areglado and Donna Chambers.

What’s the big deal? Areglado and Chambers are lead complainants in Areglado v. Charlestown Town Council.

Author: Will Collette