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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Changing the Town Charter for the common good

Ideas aimed at improving Charlestown government
By Will Collette

Now that I’ve concluded my review of the seven proposed changes to Charlestown’s Town Charter that will come up for a public hearing next Monday (Feb 27, 7 PM, Town Hall), I have some suggestions for Charter changes that might actually benefit town citizens.

Changes to the Town Charter should only be made if they are actually needed, resolve some existing problem, can’t be addressed by less drastic means than changing our town’s “constitution,” and finally, do no harm.

I concluded that none of the seven Charter changes proposed by the current Charter Revision Commission (CRC) meet those criteria. Several of their proposals are actually transparent attempts at revenge against the enemies of the members of the CRC.

Instead of these seven largely unwarranted, if not downright dangerous, proposed changes, here are four items I would propose for consideration:

  1. Responsible Contracting. Require the town to only do business with reputable companies .
  2. Local Preference. Steer town business to locally owned companies who hire local workers.
  3. Fix the “Platner Principle.” This is the principle that town property owners are FORBIDDEN to use their property in any way that is not EXPRESSLY PERMITTED by the Town Charter or ordinances. Instead, the Charter should say you can do what you want with your property unless there is a specific law against it.
  4. Periodic review of town ordinances to remove or change ordinances that don’t make sense.
It's good business to hire local, responsible contractors
Responsible Contracting. Several of the CRC’s proposed Charter changes address the way the town does business, but none of them address the problem that came out of my research into the 11-year beach concession monopoly held by the Dog Pound.

The town didn’t determine whether the Dog Pound was a truly responsible contractor during those 11 years. They didn’t look at conflicts of interest or whether the Dog Pound had been regularly inspected by the Health Department.

Many cities and towns across the country have adopted Responsible Contractor policies to set standards for what they expect from contracts: a clean record, a history of good performance, no conflicts of interest, adherence to applicable health and safety laws, payment of wages, appropriate training, and proper insurance. These policies exist because you can't assume a contractor has a clean record unless you demand it, and carry out the due diligence to ensure it. Municipalities with responsible contractor policies often end up saving money because bad contractors often do poor-quality work.

Local Preference. When we buy goods and services, why not use our buying muscle to support local businesses and local hiring? I think the town would benefit if we awarded a bidding bonus to locally owned businesses. Since Charlestown is so small – and our town policies are such that we have few town businesses – we could define “local” to mean South County (a.k.a. Washington County).

A “bidding bonus” means giving qualified bidders an edge by subtracting a certain percentage, generally between 5% and 20%, from the bid. Example: Local Bidder Inc. bids $10,000 to provide Charlestown with a year's supply of paperclips. National Predatory Corp bids $9,500. Because we want to do business with local businesses, we give Local Bidder Inc. a 10% bidding bonus, counting their bid as $9,000 so that they win the paperclip contract over National Predatory Corp.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, we do end up paying $500 more by adopting Local Preference. But the idea is to keep our local businesses thriving. Local Preference pretty much pays for itself through its positive effect on the local business climate.

We should also consider awarding a bidding bonus to companies who pledge to hire local workers. The company receiving $300,000 in town money (over $1 million when you add in the state funding) to dredge the Charlestown Breachway is based in Illinois.

They are not hiring local workers, even though we have a lot of qualified, unemployed construction workers in Charlestown. If a contractor or vendor submits a pledge, in addition to their bid, to hire a specific number of Charlestown workers, I think that’s worth at least 5% off their bid price. Again, we will pay a higher contract price, but in return, we put our neighbors to work.

Eliminate the Platner Principle. Regular Progressive Charlestown readers may recall Planning Commissar Ruth Platner's famous declaration during the wind energy debate that under the Town Charter, you are forbidden to do anything with your land or property unless it is expressly permitted in the Town Charter or ordinances.

I wrote several articles that listed land and property uses that ARE NOT expressly permitted in the Town Charter and ordinances. They include things like building a dog house, setting up a kid’s swing set, stringing a hammock between two trees, installing solar panels (sorry to Tom and to Tom) or even digging a garden. (I could find no expressed permission in the Code of Ordinance that allows you to dig a garden, although under some circumstances, you can sell home-grown produce.)

I criticized the Platner Principle for its arrogant over-reach into people’s homes and lives that may not even have any actual basis in law. I also put the principle to the test by asking various town officials for their opinion on how it would apply in a specific circumstance – and got four very different opinions.

At minimum, we need to make sure the town clarifies whether or not the Platner Principle actually exists. If this principle is simply Platner's opinion or imagination (or more likely, fondest hope), then maybe we don't need a Charter change, but a definitive legal opinion.

However, if there's a chance that Platner is correct, even if only in part, we need to address the potential for abuse when the Platner Principle leads to unwarranted intrusion into people’s lives and freedom. I hate to sound like a Libertarian when I’m really a regulation-loving, card-carrying Democrat, but the over-reach of the Platner Principle just has to be curbed.

Review Town Ordinances and weed out bad ones. Again, at the risk of sounding like a regulation-hating libertarian instead of a regulation-loving Democrat, Charlestown has some pretty dumb ordinances on the books. Over the past year, we have exposed ordinances that are not enforced, not enforceable, overly intrusive, outmoded or just plain stupid. We have laws against spitting, throwing snowballs, speaking out of turn, standing on bridges, removing unwanted shrubbery and so on that serve no useful purpose.

One of the earliest articles I wrote in Progressive Charlestown dealt with Accessory Family Dwelling Units (AFDUs) and an ordinance that Planning Commissar Ruth Platner presented to the Town Council for passage. Platner told the Council the ordinance was probably unenforceable and would almost certainly never be enforced. The Town Council passed it anyway. I had to ask why, after several years of work, they felt the need to enact an ordinance they knew was useless.

The same could be said for the pending Dark Sky ordinance that will come before the Town Council in March. The Planning Commission Advisory Opinion describes their own ordinance as changing practically nothing. The Economic Improvement Commission has written to the Council to tell them the ordinance will hurt the town’s small businesses. The Parks & Recreation Commission says the ordinance will virtually nullify the Ninigret Park Master Plan. Yet the Town Council will probably pass it. Again, you have to scratch your head and ask “why?”

I suggest we need an addition to the Town Charter that mandates a periodic review of the Town’s Code of Ordinances to determine whether each ordinance actually serves a useful purpose: whether they help or hurt, whether they are enforced, and whether they are enforceable. We should repeal those ordinances that cannot be justified as serving the public interest.

When the Town Council enacts controversial ordinances, especially when they are advised by town commissions about potential adverse effects – e.g., killing small business – the ordinance should carry a “sunset” provision: setting expiration date. For the new lighting ordinance, for example, an expiration or sunset date should be included. If we find out that the ordinance is hurting small business or ruining our lucrative summer events, we need to know that we’re not stuck with it.

In Progressive Charlestown, my colleagues and I offer you blunt social commentary and a strong critique of issues we see around town. We will, of course, continue to do that in our customary cheeky style, tempered by careful research and links to our sources. But we also feel the responsibility to offer positive alternatives to serve the public interest.

It’s not too late for the Charter Revision process to be turned around and steered in a more positive direction. So I hope some consideration will be given to these four proposals and that other concerned Charlestown residents will offer their own critique and proposals during this process. Remember, the first major public event is the Public Hearing next Monday, February 27.