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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Town Council meeting – color commentary

A very bad night for Deputy Dan and the town council majority
Deputy Dan plays "Three Resolution Monte"
By Will Collette

Last night, my colleague Tom Ferrio, in keeping with Progressive Charlestown’s proud tradition, gave you a rundown of the Town Council’s second “regular” meeting for April. While Tom gave you the who, what and when, I get to give you the “why,” plus my own snarky commentary.

The main event of the evening was Deputy Dan and his posse having to saddle up and high-tail it out of town with their proposal for Charlestown to give up its rights to use Ninigret Park.

But before getting into that, let me begin by congratulating Patricia “Pat” Anderson on her appointment as acting Town Administrator. She is stepping into a hard job in the wake of Town Administrator William DiLibero’s resignation triggered by the CCA’s “Kill Bill” campaign of character assassination.

Good luck, Pat!
On those few occasions I’ve had direct dealings with Pat in her role as Town Treasurer, I have found her to be an open and honest person with an endearing manner. I have watched her interactions with her colleagues, and it struck me that she is both a leader and a great teammate. 

She’s actually done this job before, briefly, as this nice little article in the Chariho Times reports. She filled in while our now-ousted Town Administrator was attending a special Harvard Kennedy School of Government program for town managers. DiLibero was one of only an elite few chosen for that program. I hope Bill’s next employer will be impressed by that honor.

Being Town Administrator is a terrible job, and she will take it on for a stipend of $575 a week. Since that only annualizes to $29,900, I presume that’s in addition to her current salary as Town Treasurer. That salary is slated to rise to $76,896 on July 1. Not enough. I wouldn’t want to be this crazy town’s Administrator for less than $1 million. A month.

I wish her success in leading the staff and running the town despite the terrible divisions that exist on the Town Council and in the town as a whole.

Which is my segue to discuss one of the leading causes of Charlestown’s divisions and tensions – CCA’s Council Vice-President Deputy Dan Slattery.

At last night’s Town Council meeting, I saw Slattery perform feats of acrobatics that would put the Flying Wallendas to shame. Such daring! Such stunts! It was truly a wonder to watch Deputy Dan tear up history and totally rewrite it, casting himself as the hero, of course, in the dramas and agonies that he –Deputy Dan Slattery – launched and fueled.

His series of motions on Ninigret Park, covered extensively here in Progressive Charlestown, were aimed at:

(a) Starting the ball rolling to eliminate the Town Administrator and perhaps a few other staff with him;

(b) Scrapping the Ninigret Park Master Plan that was five years in the making and setting up a new “Stakeholders Commission” to write a brand-new one, all the while taking the Parks and Recreation Commission out of the picture;

(c) Giving control over Ninigret Park to our federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer (US Fish and Wildlife Service), and to the Frosty Drew Observatory and the Arnolda neighborhood.

In a separate, broader initiative, Deputy Dan wanted to curtail the staff’s ability to raise money by requiring an elaborate process prior to any grant application being written that would pretty much make it impossible for staff to meet grant application deadlines. Bye-bye grants. Hello, higher taxes.

Of course, Deputy Dan got his man when he forced Administrator DiLibero to resign last week. I think Pat Anderson will do well as acting Administrator until such time that the CCA and Deputy Dan thinks it is expedient to “Splat Pat.” I hope that day will never come. But I wonder what Charlestown’s prospects are for finding a permanent replacement. With our history of trashing Town Administrators, I’d expect the word might be out within the profession that Charlestown is a tough gig.

Deputy Dan, in what was clearly a preplanned ruse, made extensive speeches that portrayed his resolutions as anything other than what they actually are. He said he made his motions “in the spirit of inclusion,” wanting only to heal wounded feelings held by various interest groups (e.g., Arnolda, Frosty Drew and the US Department of Interior) who felt slighted. I am not making this up.

Then, with the aid of Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, who has been assigned to “research” the legal issues behind our ownership of Ninigret Park, Deputy Dan graciously conceded that perhaps his resolutions calling for agreements with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Frosty Drew Observatory and the Arnolda neighborhood can wait until the June 11 Town Council meeting.

But Deputy Dan was not allowed to get away with this revisionist history. First, Holly Eaves, a Frosty Drew volunteer, told the Council that Deputy Dan’s resolution was a surprise to Frosty Drew. They had not complained about being excluded. They did not ask for special treatment. They do not want special treatment.

She pointedly noted that Deputy Dan never consulted with Frosty Drew before using their name and dragging them into a controversy they didn’t want. She agreed that Frosty Drew had a problem with the proposed sports lighting, but, by and large, she said “we want a voice” but “not the end say” in discussions about issues that affect them.

This is Deputy Dan's motion to give Frosty Drew and Arnolda veto power over improvements and activities at Ninigret Park. This motion has been disavowed by Frosty Drew. Deputy Dan never consulted with them before using their name. Deputy Dan says this resolution does not say what it says.
Paula Andersen, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, told the Council flat-out that the “adversarial situation” referred to by Deputy Dan was Deputy Dan’s doing. She put the responsibility for the months of tension squarely on Slattery, which is where it belongs, in my opinion.

I kept wondering if our federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer, the manager of the federal Ninigret Wildlife Refuge, was going to speak about his feelings about being either a willing or unwitting part of Deputy Dan’s campaign. He sat near the speaker’s rostrum, though he wasn’t wearing his Interior Department uniform as he usually does at Council meetings. Instead, he was dressed in mufti and throughout the meeting kept his head down and looked to me like he was trying to make himself invisible.

This is Deputy Dan's motion to give the Interior Department veto power over all Ninigret Park activities, including
those on the town-owned 55 acres where Interior has no jurisdiction. 
Deputy Dan says this resolution does not say what it says.
Deputy Dan then turned his attention to his final Ninigret motion of the evening, the proposal that originally called for scrapping the Ninigret Park Master Plan, to be replaced by a new plan written by a new Stakeholder Commission.

This is what his original motion said (then compare for yourself how he described it):

Deputy Dan says this resolution does not say what it says.

This new Commission (one that doesn’t exist under the Town Charter) would take away the Parks and Recreation Commission’s duties and responsibilities under the Town Charter. Without a Charter change, mind you. The new Stakeholder group would be dominated by Deputy Dan’s favorite stakeholders: the reluctant Frosty Drew Observatory, the shadowy Arnolda neighborhood (never seen but always felt) and our federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer.

At this point in the evening, Deputy Dan knew this scheme wasn’t going to do any better than his others. In a face-saving effort, he gave another speech in which he created out of whole cloth a completely fictional narrative about what his resolution says (see above). He claimed that all he wanted to do was get Parks & Recreation to prioritize the items in the Master Plan and put dollar figures and time lines to them. And our ever-heroic Deputy Dan Slattery said the Budget Commission was making him do it.

Again, Deputy Dan didn’t get away with this. Deb Carney pointed out that Deputy Dan’s description bore almost no resemblance to his original resolution, nor to the agenda item that was posted on Clerkbase.

Cheryl Dowdell, vice-chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, noted that the Commission held two open workshops with the Town Council, and at the most recent one, last June, the Commission and the Council in fact did agree to a set of priorities that came from the Town Council (including Deputy Dan) itself.

Vice-Chair Dowdell said the Town Council told the Parks and Recreation Commission its top priorities were: (1) getting electricity and lights into the entertainment venue; (2) developing the events center and putting up sound buffers to please the Arnolda neighborhood and (3) making the Park entrance look nicer.

The look on Deputy Dan’s face seemed to be one of stunned bafflement. Then he went into full retreat and figuratively tossed his resolution into the air, asking his colleagues what they wanted to do.

Councilor Marge Frank, who was really on her game, proposed a substitute resolution that sends the idea of refining the Ninigret Park Master Plan back to the Parks and Recreation Commission, with the request that they figure out how much it would cost to carry out those top priorities and when they could be completed.

Back-pedaling at top speed, Dan suggested that Marge’s resolution include the $15,000 that Deputy Dan had gotten from the Budget Commission to fund the work of his now-aborted “Stakeholder Commission” and gave it to Parks and Recreation to use to hire consultants to help, if needed, in calculating the costs.

This resolution was about to pass when, based on a comment from Town Solicitor Ruggiero that the $15,000 would have to come from the 2013 budget, the resolution was held over to May. There were concerns expressed from the audience and from Council members that the resolution may trigger another Open Meetings Act complaint or lawsuit.

There was no mention of a $15,000 town expenditure in the posted agenda, and the final resolution bore almost no resemblance to the agenda item. Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero opined that he thought the resolution and appropriation of funds MIGHT pass legal muster.

At the end of it all, Deputy Dan and his Council majority colleagues, Council Boss Tom Gentz and Lisa DiBello, tried to paint these proceedings as positive steps to heal the wounds and make everybody feel better.

Brief cameo appearance
Boss Gentz, reverting back to his now-lost Uncle Fluffy persona, described the process as one where “we moved past the emotions,” though as he himself put it, “we did it very badly.”

DiBello said that she too hoped these actions will reduce tensions and – looking at me – said that she hoped there would be less negative publicity and blogging.

Not gonna happen because this issue is not over, but only postponed to May and June, or until the time when Deputy Dan and the CCA trolls regroup to either refight this battle or cook up something entirely new.

Plus, after the months of CCA-driven rancor and nastiness, this Council majority doesn't get to say that everything is all better, that we can all now kiss and make up just because they screwed up, got nailed for it and then backtracked. 

Life was easier for the Council before in-depth reporting when a Council could do awkward and deceptive things with only a few people noticing.

But there is no doubt that this Council meeting was a major victory for sanity. Deputy Dan’s unexpected and wildly irrational attack on Ninigret Park, Parks and Recreation, William DiLibero and other town staff has been momentarily halted, and on this front, perhaps defeated. But at such a cost.

We are minus one capable Town Administrator. We have town hall staff that are wondering where they stand, though I am hopeful that Pat will be able to help. We have open hostility, even open warfare, among many of the Town Commissions that I’ve never seen before.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s performance at the very end of the meeting. Platner gave a long, droning and confusing rundown on the Planning Commission’s ideas for fixing the deeply flawed dark-sky lighting ordinance.

Platner noted that there were two different versions of the new draft ordinance being handed out at the Council meeting last night, but she wasn’t sure which one was the right one. Plus, she said additional changes were being made. She should have stopped right there since any further discussion, with two different drafts being circulated – neither of them correct – made a mockery of this serious issue.

Why the Council and Platner felt it was necessary to have this kind of act at the end of the evening totally escapes me. If anything, Platner’s bizarre presentation only underscored how totally the Planning Commission has screwed up an idea that, if only it were kept simple and driven by common sense and civic responsibility, could have been good for this town.

Instead, we can look forward to yet another confusing mess as we suffer through the drama of the Planning Commission trying to find its way out of a swamp of its own making.

The one good thing you can say about this April 23rd Town Council meeting is that it was shorter than usual. But since this is the second half of the agenda that began on April 9, the Council has run more than six hours of open session during April. And that doesn’t count their special meetings and executive sessions.