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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Charter proposals would change the way Charlestown does business

PART II: More charter changes that could cause more harm than good
By Will Collette

Every two years, Charlestown reviews its Town Charter – its municipal “Constitution” – to determine what, if any, changes need to be made. Though we are not required to make changes, it seems that every new Charter Revision Committee (CRC) comes up with a batch of ideas for changes that end up going to the voters.

We are at the stage now where the new CRC which is, by the way, stacked with members of Charlestown’s anti-wind NIMBY group, Ill Wind RI, has come up with seven proposed changes. To a large extent, these changes reflect the CRC members’ personal agenda to use the Charter to get revenge for the Whalerock wind farm proposal which is currently in the courts..

These seven proposed changes will be up for public comment at a hearing on February 27. After that, the CRC may decide to go back to the drawing board, or they might decide to go ahead and submit their drafts for legal review from the Town Solicitor and the state. After legal review and revision, the Town Council then has to vote on which questions will go before the voters on the November ballot.

In the last installment on the Charter Revision Committee (click here), I described Questions One and Two of the seven changes being proposed by the Committee. I noted there were lots of problems, unanswered questions and the potential for unintended consequences in those two questions.

In this installment, I will go over Questions Three and Four, plus Question Six because these three proposals all tie in with Charlestown’s business dealings. if all three are enacted, they will probably interact with each other in strange ways.

I'll deal with Questions Five and Seven later.

Question Three is an Ill Wind pay-back proposal like Question Two. This proposal stems from Ill Wind's bad experience with the proposed Whalerock wind farm which started out as a partnership between the town and Larry LeBlanc’s development company.

So, the CRC proposes that before the town enters into any kind of agreement or partnership with anyone or any entity for anything that has any kind of financial aspect to it, the deal must be publicly announced and opened for public hearing. In most cases, this will take a minimum of two months to complete.

Even though there is a lot of merit to the principle of transparency in the deals the town enters into on behalf of the taxpayers, changing the Charter because Ill Wind is still angry at the Town Council that served in 2009-2010 is bad public policy.

Setting aside the revenge issue for now, Question Three is so broad and so vague that it is sure to cause some pretty serious unintended consequences.

Requiring public notice and a public hearing for EVERY contract means a two-month lag time for even the smallest of transactions. Placing an order for a box of pencils is a contract.

And what, exactly, is a “legal arrangement?” There is no standard definition for this term.

This Question needs some work to clarify the terms and make it more practical. I understand the CRC members are still angry at the last Council , but pushing a vague and overly broad measure like this could create a lot of unnecessary problems for the future. And it won't change the past.

Question Four somewhat ties in with Question Three. Question Four is the longest and most complicated of all the seven proposals. It is also the most unnecessary. It is an effort to micro-manage purchasing through a complicated set of changes in the existing Charter language.

Micromanagement is rarely a good thing
When you combine Question Four with Question Three, you really put the town in a bind.

Question Four sets out a new set of bidding rules, while Question Three would require any “contract” or “legal arrangement” ( a term that has no standard definition) to go through a public process that will take at least two months.

Buying stuff – e.g. ordering bulk paper supplies from W.B. Mason costing $1001 – is a “contract” that would trigger the requirements of both Questions Three and Four.

Question Four seems like an unnecessary and inappropriate use of the Charter to fix a problem that may not even exist. There was nothing to indicate any problems with the town's purchasing practices in the recently released independent audit of the town's finances. If this was a real issue, it would have been flagged by the auditors. As the cliche goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

MISSED OPPORTUNITY. However, if this Charter Revision Committee is keen to look at town purchasing reforms, it ought to consider a couple of common sense measures that, in my opinion, would provide tangible benefits to the town..

  • Local preference. The Charter could require Charlestown to give first preference to locally-owned companies (since Charlestown is so small, perhaps we should use Washington County as the definition of local) or to companies that hire Charlestown workers. Providence has a “First Source” program that requires any business contracting with the city to act affirmatively to hire Providence workers. We have an Illinois company using the town’s and the state’s money to dredge the Ninigret Breachway. Are they using any unemployed Charlestown construction workers? Shouldn’t we make it the town’s policy to steer business to local companies and jobs to local workers?
Question Six calls for the Charter to require the Town to undertake a five-year capital improvement planning process. I say, sure, why not? But the state already requires the town to do this so this Charter change is unnecessary.
Is this what the CRC has in mind?
I reviewed the town’s most recent audit which was presented at the February 13 Town Council meeting. The auditors seemed to have taken a pretty comprehensive look at the town’s capital assets, expenditures and the special funds it has created to deal with future capital needs.

While long-term planning  is a good idea, we don't need to write it into the Charter, especially since there is a state mandate.

The CRC  minutes show that this Question came at the insistence of Council Vice-President Deputy Dan Slattery, who has a demonstrated flair for meddling and micromanaging.

Perhaps, in one of Deputy Dan’s undercover, covert investigations, he ferreted out some nefarious plot to STOP planning long-term for our capital needs. Of course, we’ll never know for sure what Deputy Dan found because he doesn’t believe in revealing his “research."

All three of the Questions reviewed in this article - Questions Three, Four and Six, seem unnecessary at best. Taken together, they could cause a mountain of unproductive paperwork and bureaucracy. Then there are the unintended, unforeseen consequences.

If something unexpected happens that isn't covered in the Capital Improvement Plan, will the town be able to respond without having to resort to the drawn out new layers of bureaucracy created by Questions Three and Four? 

One of Charlestown's realities is that no matter who you are or what you do, somebody is going to scream at you. Plus, we have a number of people in town who make it their hobby to nit-pick and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to take legal actions against the town. These three questions contain a number of vague requirements, as well as many very specific, even rigid, requirements that would provide for lots of entertainment for those who get their kicks by taking the town to court.

The Charter Revision Committee should have been given the government equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take. Specifically, the Committee should swear that their first priority is “Do no harm.” These three proposed Charter revisions, as presented, don’t seem to offer enough potential benefit to the town to offset the potential for harm.

I wish the Committee would consider the idea of proposing a town policy that we don’t do business with bad actors and instead steer our town’s business toward good locally-owned businesses that hire local people. But revenge can make you blind.