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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Proposed changes to Town Charter on the docket

February 27 hearing on seven proposed changes that may go on the November ballot
By Will Collette

The Charter Revision Committee has published its proposal for seven changes to the Town Charter. If approved by the state and the Town Council, the changes to the Charter will go to Charlestown voters in November for their final approval or rejection.

The seven proposals are a mixed bag. Some are really bad ideas while others are unnecessary. Some could have unintended consequences or perhaps don’t address the real issues. With some changes, a couple of the proposals could be beneficial. And there are some missed opportunities.

It’s not too late to dump revision proposals that are bad or unnecessary, to tinker with the others and maybe pick up on some of those missed opportunities. These seven questions will be officially unveiled at a Public Hearing on Monday, February 27 at Town Hall. Read them for yourself by clicking here

In this installment, I will cover Questions One and Two. I’ll deal with the other five questions over the next few days.

By way of background, Charlestown’s Town Charter is our town equivalent of the Constitution. It defines the powers – and the limits to power – of our town government over the citizens of Charlestown.

Making changes to the Charter is a serious matter and should not be done for any purpose other than clear necessity for the common good.

Unfortunately, the current Charter Revision Committee came to this grave task with a very different agenda. As I wrote earlier, the current Charter Revision Committee is comprised almost entirely of members of the anti-wind power NIMBY group, Ill Wind RI, who live near the proposed site for the Whalerock industrial wind farm.

If you review the minutes of their meetings, they make it plain from the outset that they stacked this Committee so they could change the Charter to reflect their antipathy toward Larry LeBlanc’s unpopular wind farm proposal. While I may agree with them that the Whalerock project is bad for Charlestown, their attempt to use the Charter as a tool of revenge is a gross abuse of their authority.

Because of their anti-Whalerock agenda, each of the seven changes to the Town Charter must be very carefully reviewed, starting with Question One.

Would Question One require something like the YMCA
deal to go before the voters? Maybe not.
Question One could settle a glaring inconsistency in town policy, but could have unintended consequences. This proposal probably would have required the question of the $475,000 YMCA Camp caper to go before the voters. Maybe

Under the Charter Revision Committee’s proposal, any land acquisition that will cost Charlestown tax payers $150,000 or more will go to the voters. Without exception. Except maybe not.

Under the present Charter, the threshold is $50,000 but with a glaring loophole – if there is other funding in the mix, as in the case of the Y Camp, like a DEM grant or an approved bond measure, no vote is required.

But there's another loophole that may not be covered by this Charter revision proposal. That's whether a deal like the YMCA camp land deal would actually be covered.

That’s because, technically, the Town isn’t really “buying” the YMCA camp. The YMCA camp caper is cleverly structured so that Charlestown PAYS the Charlestown Land Trust $475,000 for a generally worthless “conservation easement.” Then, the Charlestown Land Trust takes the $475,000 and completes the purchase from the YMCA. Is that "conservation easement" the same as "acquiring an interest" in the real estate. I'd like to get a definitive answer to that question.

On the other hand, the town’s purchase of the land on which non-profit developers build affordable housing might have to go before the voters. At the February 13 Town Council meeting, the Council approved a $200,000 acquisition funding for the Edwards Lane project. Would this type of project also have to go to the voters for approval? Or are these types of funding arrangements also structured in a way that is outside the scope of this Charter revision proposal?

At the February 13 Council meeting, I was rooting for a Council decision to send the YMCA Camp deal to the voters. However, I didn’t feel that way about Edwards Lane. Indeed, the question of whether to approve or hold over a project for a vote depends a lot on how you feel about the project.

Last spring, the CCA wanted to kill the beach facilities proposal. They DID NOT want it funded from the Open Space/Recreation bond. So the CCA-controlled Council majority sent the issue to the voters, fully expecting they could organize enough no voters to kill the project. They did not expect that a majority of town voters actually think decent toilets at the beach are desirable.

Ironically, Question One could bite the Ill Winders in the ass if it is approved by the voters. Under Question One, the town would not be able to buy Larry LeBlanc's land as open space and end the Whalerock project once and for all without going to the voters. Even though Whalerock is unpopular, so is the idea of buying Larry LeBlanc's land.

Until the question of what projects would REALLY be covered by this proposed Charter change – whether it would really cover ALL town-financed acquisitions or allow clever schemes to slide – I think we need to reserve judgment - and get clear and precise answers. Plus we should think and re-think what it is that we really want.
By contrast, I would argue without qualification that Question Two is a bad idea. This proposed change would set term limits for the Zoning Board at one five-year term renewable once and once only during a lifetime for another five years.

Good for Klingons, bad for Charlestown
The problem with this proposal is that it is a revenge measure by the Ill Wind RI members who stacked the Charter Revision Committee. The Ill Winders are still angry with the Zoning Board for not agreeing with their interpretation of the zoning law with respect to the Whalerock wind farm proposal.

Based on the early minutes, they had several revenge measures in mind. Fortunately, they were talked out of several other revenge Charter revisions by our Town Solicitor, but some are still on the table. 

Changing the Charter for revenge is bad public policy. And being blatant about it – by singling out ONLY the Zoning Board for term limits, and no other position within the town – smells so badly it should not even go beyond the proposal stage.

During their meetings, the Committee members rationalized going after Zoning because they, along with Planning and the Town Council, are powerful. So why not impose term limits on Planning or the Town Council? Sure, both bodies are elected, but so what? If longevity is somehow equated with evil, they should be term-limited too. 

In a small town like Charlestown, we don't generally get enough volunteers to serve on commissions and committees as it is. Getting people to take on complicated volunteer jobs like the Zoning Board of Review isn't easy. Setting up further restrictions, as Question Two and others we'll review later do, seems, at best, counter-productive. And to do it in such a discriminatory fashion as the Charter Revision Committee proposes is disgraceful.