Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

More unnecessary Town Charter proposals

Part 3: Monkeying around with town government positions
By Will Collette

Read the background on the Charter Revision Committee here.
Read Part 1 on proposed changes on land acquisitions and term limits
Read Part 2 on three proposed changes to the way the town does business

Every two years, the town considers changing the town’s “Constitution,” its Town Charter. It starts with the appointment of a Charter Revision Committee (CRC) who generally find something that needs revising. After all, what’s a Revision Committee without revisions?

We expect the people who volunteer for this relatively boring assignment to take their mission seriously and to act with the best interests of the town as their top priority. That’s not always what happens, but we always hope people will act responsibly.

This time around, Charlestown’s resident anti-wind power NIMBY group, Ill Wind RI, decided to pack this Committee. Based on a careful review of their meeting minutes, this group had little else on their mind except revenge against the Zoning Board and against a process they felt allowed Larry LeBlanc’s Whalerock wind farm proposal to actually win town approval (now contested in court).

I’ve already reviewed five of the seven changes the CRC Ill Winders have recommended. Not one of them will serve the best interests of the citizens of Charlestown without substantial revision. Most are unnecessary. Some of their proposals are downright destructive.

In this installment, I will review Questions Five and Seven. Both would change the way town office holders are picked, and not in ways that will benefit the town.

Question Five would make it a rule under the Charter that the Town Council Presidency must be offered to the person who gets the most votes for Town Council. The #2 vote-getter must be offered the Vice-Presidency.

Traditionally, this is how the Town Council usually selects its President and Vice-President, though not always. One notable exception was during Jim Mageau’s reign (2007-2008).

Like several other proposals advanced by the Charter Revision Committee, this proposal looks back at an old issue and seeks to fix it by saddling future Town Councils with an unnecessary requirement.

It seems the Charter Revision Committee thinks the Town Council President is like being the President of Charlestown.

Even at the national level, as the 2000 election showed, we don't necessary require the President of the United States to be the top vote-getter..

There's even less reason why the Charlestown Town Council President needs to be the one who wins the popular vote, and here's why.

Let’s play “Once Upon a Time in Charlestown for a moment while I pose a nightmare scenario to the Ill Winders who dominate the Charter Revision Committee.

Suppose that the top vote getter in the 2012 Town Council race is ME, or for a really wicked nightmare, Jim Mageau. Or worst yet, Mageau and I come in #1 and #2.

Even though that’s absolutely, positively NOT going to happen, let’s just suppose. And let’s further suppose that the other Council members are Ill Winders Mike Chambers and Maureen Areglado plus former CCA President incumbent Dan Slattery who come in third, fourth and fifth respectively.

Under Question Five, Mageau and I are the two Council officers presiding over a Council majority that hates us and will do anything in their power to mess us up.

Howdya like them apples?

The Town Council President and Vice-President offices hold no special meaning beyond the Council chambers. The Council President does not get a protection detail from the Charlestown Police. There is no Town Council Presidential Seal. There is no Town car to chauffeur the Council Vice-President around.

They are officers who preside over the Council whose votes have no more weight than any other Council member. From time to time, a Council majority will decide not to pick the top vote-getter as Council President, but so what?

Think of the US Constitution and the way our federal legislature, the Congress, is structured. Would it make sense that the top vote-getter among the 435 members of the House of Representatives should automatically be named Speaker of the House? Chances are that would be a New York metro area Democrat who runs unopposed. Again I have to ask, howdya like them apples?

It is just as likely that a change like the Charter question proposal will produce minority officers presiding over a council majority that doesn’t like that result one bit. Question Five offers no benefit to offset the likely problems it will cause to future Councils.

Question Seven reflects the displeasure the majority of the CRC members had with the flap over appointments to the Affordable Housing Commission. Ill Wind got into the affordable housing flap mainly in support of their close ally the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) which hates affordable housing. The CCA had wanted to stack the Affordable Housing Commission to push their agenda. Later, the Ill Winders thought about the commission appointment process and figured out another way it affects their agenda. So here's what the CRC proposes:.

It was only a couple of months ago when it looked like the town was going to mobilize for a major frontal assault on the state’s Affordable Housing Law. Council President Tom Gentz and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner came up with what I called the Affordable Housing Deconstruction Act which would have gutted the state law.

Platner was also pushing her long-term jihad against building any new affordable housing in Charlestown.

For a brief period, it looked like one of the critical power centers in the struggle between the anti-affordable housing forces led by the CCA, Platner and Gentz and everybody else was going to be the Affordable Housing Commission. This Commission was the town’s step-child. Nobody wanted to be on it. For a long-time, it had only one member, Evelyn Smith, and couldn’t hold a meeting because it could not muster a quorum of three because it didn’t have three members, even after Suzanne Ferrio joined.

But when Platner and Gentz started their anti-Affordable Housing jihad rolling, all of a sudden it looked like there was a reason and purpose for the Affordable Housing Commission.

The CCA moved to stack the Commission and there was a big fight at the November Town Council meeting over whether their hand-picked jihadists would get appointed, since a pro-affordable housing slate of counter-candidates also applied for the slots just hours after the CCA slate filed their papers.

Affordable Housing Commission chair Evelyn Smith argued that the Charter called for commission appointees to be “the best qualified” and that simply showing up first doesn't meet that standard.

Ill Wind leaders, the Chambers and the Areglados were outraged at this notion and spoke bitterly against merit selection at that Council meeting.

Ultimately, the Council majority, which is controlled by CCA, prevailed and the CCA slate was sworn in as new Affordable Housing Commission members.

What the CCA didn’t count on was the collapse of the anti-affordable housing jihad when the illogic and pointlessness of their position became clear even to their own hand-picked Affordable Housing Commission members.

But the Ill Winders held on to the notion that there was something wrong with the town's commission appointment process. Instead of arguing for instant, no-wait appointment - as they argued in the November Town Council meeting - the Ill Winders came at the question from an entirely different angle.

They figured out a way to use it in a way that helps them attack their old enemies on the Zoning Board. During several meetings, according to the minutes, the Ill Winders expressed dismay that veteran Zoning Board members were simply getting reappointed when their terms were up and they re-applied to stay on.

So Question 7 was born out of the desire to slow down that process, to ensure that their enemies on Zoning simply didn't reappointed. The extra time gives the Ill Winders time to make sure they can stay on top of which Zoning Board members are close to the end of their term and to organize against their reappointment, while they recruit their own pliant candidate to replace the evil, wicked Zoning Board veteran.

Why else would they want this Charter change? What need does it address? What problem does it solve? How will delaying the process of appointing new members of town commissions help Charlestown fill chronic commission vacancies?

Charlestown is a very small town. Among our citizens, only a small fraction of the people have the time, desire or for that matter, the stomach for town government and politics. Since 2007, our town government has been a laughing stock at best and, at worst, a brutal blood sport.

So few enough people want to serve. And here we have the Ill Winders pushing Charter changes that will add further barriers to the involvement of the limited pool of volunteers. If you put these two Questions together with Question 2, which would term limit the Zoning Board of Review (and no other commission or office), and the picture emerges of a Charter Revision Committee that wants to mess with how town government works just to push their own agenda.

That concludes my review of the seven Charter Revisions being proposed by the CRC. None of them are needed and some of them could cause real harm.

When these seven proposals come up for a public hearing on February 27, I hope Charlestown citizens will come prepared to thoughtfully explain that the Charter should not be changed unless it is to promote the general good of the citizens of Charlestown, not to fulfill the narrow agenda of the special interest group that has high jacked the process. The Ill Winders were pretty good at being NIMBYs, but for the task of reviewing the Charter, they were clearly over their heads.

In the next installment, I’ll propose some Charter changes that might actually do the town some good.