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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Gang that Couldn’t Get Its Name Straight returns on Thursday

Where once were seven, now there are six
By Will Collette

After a hiatus following their disastrous February 27 debut, Charlestown’s Charter Review Advisory “Board” will resume their meeting schedule on April 26.

I put the word “Board” in quotation marks because, under the Town Charter, their actual name is the “Charter Revision Advisory Committee” (CRAC).

It’s a real bad start for such a group when they take liberties with the name they are given in the Charter they are supposed to be reviewing. Maybe they missed reading that part.

A quick recap: According to our town’s “Constitution,” the Town Charter, a committee is appointed every two years to review the Charter to see if any changes need to be made. If so, the committee members are to craft these changes and present them to the Town Council. The changes must be reviewed by the Town Solicitor for legality. If the Town Council approves the changes, they must then be sent to the voters for approval or disapproval.

There’s no rule that says the Charter must be revised every two years, but it seems that every Charter Revision Advisory Committee comes up with some. It is a very serious thing to change the Charter, so we count on each CRAC to handle the job responsibly.

This year more than any year I can remember, the Charter Revision Advisory Committee is loaded with members from one single interest group. Most of the CRAB-CRACers are members of the Ill Wind RI anti-wind power NIMBY group. They glommed onto the charter revision committee with the clear intent of changing the Town Charter as payback over the Whalerock wind farm proposal.

On February 27, at their first public hearing on their seven proposed Charter changes, the committee was blasted by the chairs of most of the town’s major commissions, by the Town Treasurer and town department heads, and by citizens at large for proposing changes that were vindictive and self-serving, unnecessary and burdensome. Question #2 in particular, which would have set term limits for members of the Zoning Board but no other town commission, was soundly blasted for its obviously biased intent. The main supporter of the seven proposals was Mike Chambers, spouse of one of the CRAB-CRACers and CCA’s principal blogger on their Oppressive Charlestown website.

It was a bad night for the CRAB-CRACers. At their first meeting after their disastrous public review, the group decided to ditch the worst of their seven proposals – Question #2.

The CRACed-CRABs also recognized that they needed to revisit all of the remaining six after hearing that even those proposals that weren’t revenge-oriented might do more harm than good by gumming up the operations of town government with unnecessary regulations.

So the seven amendments are now down to six.

As the CRAB-CRACers were told on February 27, the best you can say about these proposed Charter changes is that they are not really necessary. It was a good idea to scrap Question #2. Here are the other six:

Question 1 would require a town vote on land acquisitions, but the CRABy CRACers have had a hard time figuring out how to make this question work. On the one hand, they would like to be able to force a town vote on land projects they hate (e.g. buying Larry LeBlanc's land, although I would think they'd like to see the town buy it) while letting other land acquisitions they like sail through. The problem with trying to change the Charter to deal with a past political grievance is that what you put in the Charter applies to all matters covered by the language. Controversial projects have a way of coming to the voters' attention whether you change the Charter or not.

Since their February 27 meeting, they have come up with a simplified Question 1:

Question 1
(Amends Article V § C-13, Sec. B – Acquisition of Property by the Town)

“Shall the Charter be amended to remove the words “in part” from the existing provisions of Article V § C-13.  If approved, this provision shall read, as follows: Acquisition of real estate for a purchase price in excess of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000) shall be approved by voters at a Budget Public Hearing/Financial Referendum, unless purchased with funds provided by government and/or non-profit agencies, or with previously approved bond funds or if acquired by grant, gift or bequest.?”

But this language would probably not apply to such outrages as the Town Council's approval of the $475,000 payment to the Charlestown Land Trust for a worthless conservation easement, since this scam was structured in such a way that Charlestown doesn't get the land - we just pay for it. As much as I believe the voters have the right to vote to block this rip-off, I don't think this proposed Charter change will do anything to prevent such abuses in the future.

Question 2 is gone, so Question 3 is next. It is similar in origins to Question #1. The Ill Winders on the CRAC want to make sure that any future partnership, such as the one between the town and Whalerock, would have to go through an exhaustive public process.

They have made some changes to their original language for Question #3 so that it now reads:

Question 3[1]
(Amends Article VIII § C-31, section K. - Town Council - Legislation)

“Shall the Charter be amended to require the Town Council to conduct a public hearing with reasonable prior notice and disclosure concerning the adoption and/or approval of any agreement between the Town and any other person, party, entity or association in which the Town has partnership role?”

[1] Modified provision by Town Solicitor for consideration by the Commission.

But here's the problem with writing this into the Charter - it messes up lots of routine intergovernmental projects for such things as affordable housing.

Like their other proposals, this Question doesn't really seem necessary, even to address the Whalerock issue that motivated the CRACed CRABs to propose this question. Do the Ill Winders think the Whalerock matter didn't get aired out in public? That it didn't become a matter of pretty extensive community involvement? How would this Charter proposal have led to a different outcome? And besides, you won. As I've said recently, the only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner.

Question #4 is a long and complicated set of procedures for town purchasing that goes way over the line into trying to micromanage the town through the Charter of all place. Bad idea. And besides, the voters just approved a new buying and bidding procedure in the last election. The town staff have told you that this proposal will cause a big mess at Town Hall and is unnecessary. The town already complies with state law.

Question #5 codifies the custom of naming the highest Town Council vote-getter as Council President automatically, and makes the #2 vote-getter the vice-president. Charlestown Town Councils normally do this as a matter of course, except when the top vote-getters are in the minority on the Council. The CRACed CRABs were told that forcing a Council to be led by officers who are in the minority and are not chosen by a majority of their colleagues is an invitation to political gridlock on the Council. Besides, the voters aren't electing a President of Charlestown, they are electing members of the Town Council.

Question #6 adds a provision to the Charter in the Budget Commission section that requires Charlestown to prepare a five-year Capital Improvement Plan. This Charter change proposal is a piece of Deputy Dan Slattery mischief. What the CRACers probably don't know - because they don't know the Charter - is that preparing a capital improvement plan is already in the Charter - in Article XI, C-43-P under the duties and responsibilities of the Town Administrator. The town has been carrying out its responsibility at a steady pace, and if that wasn't enough to cover this matter, state law requires the town to create a 5-year capital plan. Even if it wasn't already in the Charter - and it is - state law would supersede. This Charter question is completely unnecessary.

Question #7 would require the Council to advertise vacancies to various town commissions and hold off on filling them for an extra month. This Charter question is the direct result of Mike Chambers, the renowned economic pundit and blogger at CCA's Oppressive Charlestown website, being pissed off that he wasn't appointed to the Zoning Board. His pay-back is to gum up the works for every commission to make his point that, errrrr, whatever his point is. I'm sure he'll blog about it on Oppressive Charlestown.

Seven proposed Charter questions, and not a one is needed. Not a one would make government more open, transparent, efficient or economical. Not one would make anybody in Charlestown any better off or happier, except maybe Mike Chambers.

So more time wasted, more mischief to thwart, more missed opportunities.