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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Budget hearing – weird and anticlimactic

Y-Gate can gets kicked down the road
Second legal opinion says the voters have the right to vote on the expenditure
By Will Collette

The Monday night public hearing on Charlestown’s Fiscal Year 2013 was yet another strange episode in the increasingly bizarre politics of Charlestown.

In a nutshell, the night’s hot item – how the town plans to handle the scheme to take $475,000 of taxpayer money to fund a deal that benefits the Westerly YMCA, Charlestown Land Trust and the vacation home owners in Sonquipaug – was postponed.

Council member Gregg Avedisian made a brief announcement in a very brief meeting that the proposal to pay the town’s part of the shady Y-Gate deal could not be done as the Budget Commission proposed. The town could not simply pay $475,000 for a worthless conservation easement on the abandoned YMCA campground without putting it before the voters as a separate warrant item.

Instead, the Town Council will have to figure out what to do next and are due to take this issue up again at the Regular Town Council meeting next Monday night, May 14.

Avedisian said the deal to take $475,000
of petty cash was withdrawn - for now
With the single most controversial item off the table – and with the advance notice that there would be no other business on the agenda other than taking citizens’ comments on the budget – no motions, no votes – there was little else to do but end the meeting early, much to everyone’s surprise.

Long-time residents observe that this method of dealing with the Town Budget by holding a hearing, and then the vote, really strips citizens of the ability to substantively review and alter the budget. In years past, Town Budgets were subject to often lively Financial Town Meetings, but this new process leaves most participants wondering “what’s the point?”

This budget hearing was further flawed by minimal, barely legal public notice. And the notice contained the proviso that if citizens wished to alter the budget by petition, the signed and certified petitions would have to be submitted ten days prior to the budget hearing.

Interestingly, the notice containing this information was filed with the Secretary of State’s office barely ten calendar days prior to the budget hearing, leaving any would-be petitioners roughly thirty minutes or so to craft their petitions, gather the signatures and file the petitions.

But, hey, this is Charlestown. If you want true democratic process, you're going to need a new Town Council.

So, you’re probably wondering what will happen next with Y-Gate. Is this the end of it or is it simply going in another direction?

We won’t know the answer to that until next week’s Town Council meeting. And we won’t get a hint until the Town Council holds its agenda meeting on Wednesday and then posts the agenda with supporting documentation on Clerkbase.

The Council does know they are walking on a razor’s edge and that there are so many people angry at their months’ of wacky conduct that it would take very little to send this issue back into court, perhaps to join the on-going John Donoghue v. Charlestown case that currently contests the Y-Gate deal.

The Town Council could decide on Monday that they will send the Y-Gate issue to the voters as a separate warrant item for the voters to decide at the June 4 budget referendum.

Now it was safe for Ruggiero to give an opinion
Now that the town’s Bond Counsel has opined that the item should go to the voters separately, our Town Solicitor Peter Ruggeiro had the political cover to also issue his opinion that the expenditure, if it is to go forward, needs expressed voter approval.

The Town Council could also decide on Monday to revert to their earlier plan to draw the $475,000 from the voter-approved $2 million Open Space/Recreation Bond. If they take that approach, they have some stronger legal basis to argue that specific voter approval is not required, under the terms for land acquisition set by the Town Charter.

But that path will be so politically unpopular that any Council member who supported it would face an end to their political future in Charlestown.

The Town Council could decide to re-group and see if the political climate favors putting the issue in front of the voters in November.

Or they could just forget it – tell the Westerly Y and the Land Trust and the Sonquipaugians that they tried to make Charlestown taxpayers fork over half a million dollars, but that it was no sale.

Then these interest groups would have to work the deal themselves, but not with taxpayer money. They have until the end of the year to come up with matching funds the state grant of $367,000, presuming RIDEM is still interested in paying for an over-priced, trashed out abandoned camp.

Politically, the YMCA campground has turned into a radioactive waste dump. The remaining base of support for the deal is pretty much down to those few people who have something to gain from the deal.

Time to end it. But until it’s over, and over for good, stayed vigilant and stay tuned.