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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

CCA hits the panic button

“Be afraid, be very afraid”
By Will Collette

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance sent out a very peculiar e-bleat to its followers on April 26. The first part of the e-bleat was not so strange – they took a victory lap to celebrate the craven actions of their Town Council Majority (Boss Tom Gentz, Deputy Dan Slattery and their crony, Lisa DiBello) in forcing Town Administrator William DiLibero to resign

But then, the CCA goes on to explain why it was necessary to disembowel DiLibero as a ritual sacrifice to the gods of the Interior, that the ousting of DiLibero was the first of many steps Charlestown must take to appease the federal government to keep them from taking back Ninigret Park.

Oddly, CCA Steering Committee member Virginia Wooten, speaking on behalf of the CCA, told the Westerly Sun that the CCA played no role in DiLibero’s ouster. She and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, editor of the CCA e-bleats and website, need to get their messages straight. 

I feel sorry for people who count on the CCA e-bleats to get their news about what’s going on within the town, because this is such a classic example of the CCA’s bizarre and alarmist – indeed loony – paranoia about town affairs.

I am not quite sure why the CCA is acting like they’re so afraid of disagreeing with the Department of the Interior. I think Charlestown crossed that bridge a long time ago when we took the Interior Department to court over the issue of the Narragansett Indian tribe’s desire to place some of their land under federal trust. This suit was tied in to Charlestown's long-standing opposition to an Indian casino in town, a sentiment that I share.

Charlestown’s lawsuit against the Interior Department (click here for more detail) was given to the state to prosecute, in large part due to the expense, although the town continued to participate through our hired anti-Narragansett lawyer, Injun Joe Larisa, who was paid $170,000 since July 2009 and is still in the budget. That case, which became known as Carcieri v. Salazar, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the state and the town.

Because this decision stripped major tribal sovereignty rights from hundreds of Indian tribes across the U.S., the Interior Department has made it a major priority to “fix” the flaws in the law that led to the Supreme Court’s decision. While I oppose a Charlestown casino, I do not believe it is right to punish the hundreds of Indian nations who were hurt by Carcieri v. Salazar. 

If there’s a serious reason why the Interior Department might not have the town of Charlestown on its Christmas card list, look no further than Carcieri v. Salazar.

But that’s not what worries the CCA. Indeed, they would have us fight to the death against the Interior Department or even against the combined armed forces of the United States over the rights of the Narragansetts, as evidenced by their e-bleat last February about a federal budget proposal aimed at addressing the flaws in the law that led to the Supreme Court’s decision.

The gods of the Interior require sacrifices
No, those aren’t the things that make the CCA fear the Interior Department. It’s two aborted projects – the municipal wind turbine proposal and the sports lighting proposal – that the CCA believes may have disturbed the gods of Interior.

From November 2010 until mid-March 2011, Town Administrator Bill DiLibero – acting at the direction of the Town Council and under continuous pressure from Town Council President Boss Gentz – tried to finalize a site for the wind project.

The project was on the drawing board as a partnership with the Washington County Regional Planning Commission and was to be funded with federal stimulus money. The turbines, had they been built, would have supplied power for town buildings and the Chariho Schools.

The plan was to place the turbines on the town-owned 55 acres in Ninigret, land that is not under the Interior Department’s jurisdiction. But DiLibero knew from growing but subtle resistance from the wealthy and influential Arnolda neighborhood that siting the turbines on the town-owned 55 acres wasn’t going to happen.

Boss Gentz wanted wind
At the same time, Boss Gentz was pressuring DiLibero to make this project happen. Though he would deny it now, Boss Gentz was then a huge fan of wind power and wanted to make sure that at least one municipal wind turbine was built at Ninigret Park..

Indeed, quite a few people in town who opposed the Whalerock industrial wind proposal (including me) felt quite differently about the much smaller municipal project.

So DiLibero tried to get the Interior Department’s approval to site the turbines on the 172.4 acres of town land that is subject to Interior Department approval. Interior said “no.” DiLibero asked the Boston regional office twice, and they said “no” both times.

DiLibero met with our local federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer, at least twice, but finally the clock ran out when NIMBY pressure on the Town Council led to their March 14, 2011, vote to ban wind energy in Charlestown, killing the project.

I keep looking at this sequence of events to try to see some plausible basis for the CCA to claim that this now-aborted project will lead the Interior Department to seize Ninigret Park. If anything, it looks like the CCA may be recruiting the Interior Department to help them in their crusades.

The next CCA cause célèbre is the proposal by Parks and Recreation for state funding to install dark-sky-friendly sports lights at Ninigret Park. This project was approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and presented to the Town Council. Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano pitched a proposal to the state Department of Environmental Management for the lights.

Federal overseer Charlie Vandemoer
Our local federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer, wrote to the state DEM and asked them to reject the town’s grant application. His boss in Boston wrote a letter to DiLibero telling him the Interior Department did not approve of the project.

There are some unanswered questions about this sequence of events – i.e., who fed the Feds the false information that the town was planning to build a “commercial” lighted football stadium? Were the lights to be installed on the town’s 55 acres not under Interior’s jurisdiction or on the 172.4 acres that are? Or both? And instead of writing a sneak-attack letter to RIDEM, why didn’t Charlie Vandemoer talk to the town?

Personally, I think the proposal to DEM for sports lighting overdid it – probably way more lighting than is needed or is appropriate, but by the time a project like this goes through the process, they rarely end up looking like what they did in the proposal. Of course, now that option is off the table.

The sports lighting project never got off the drawing board but has now been resurrected by the CCA as yet another reason why the Interior Department is going to take Ninigret Park away from us.

When the CCA first brought up this paranoid fantasy about the feds taking away Ninigret Park, I researched the federal Lands to Parks Program and then expanded my research to include the whole federal program to give away land that used to house military installations. Ninigret Park is one of hundreds of former military bases that have been converted to other, civilian uses.

I wanted to know how often the Interior Department has actually taken land back, and why.

I found that the CCA’s fears are, to put it most kindly, exaggerated. I found only two instances in which the Interior Department considered “reversion” of former military bases approved for conversion into state or municipal parkland.

Don't close those parks, Arnold
The most recent was the General Services Administration’s 2009 ultimatum to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that if the state went through with its plan to close down several parks on old military bases to save money, the feds would take the land back.

The state didn’t close those parks and the feds didn’t take back the land.

The Government Accountability Office did one study of the military base conversion program and found very few instances where the federal government actually took back lands it had given away.

The one instance that resembles Charlestown is an old Navy air training base in Warminster, PA, that was given to the municipality but then taken back by the feds ten years ago.

The reason: the town officials in Warminster decided not to develop the land into a park because it had too many undisclosed environmental problems. Warminster officials were more than happy for the feds to take the land back. Incidentally, Ninigret was also loaded with toxic waste and environmental problems, some of which still exist today.

The agencies involved in the land transfers, including the Interior Department’s Lands to Parks Program, told the GAO “that reversion had increasingly become untenable as a tool when deed requirements are not met. Agency officials attribute the increasing difficulty of reversions to issues ranging from adhering to numerous legal requirements to the availability of budgetary resources” (p. 45).

So the CCA needs to stop its ridiculous fear-mongering about the danger of the feds taking back Ninigret Park. I understand that the CCA likes to create its own reality, but it is not entitled to create its own facts.

The April 26 CCA e-bleat speaks of their concern over an “adversarial environment” between Charlestown and the Interior Department. Again, three words: Carcieri versus Salazar.

Let's get clear about which land is OUR land and
which land is THEIR land
And even if there was no Carcieri v. Salazar case to make things awkward, there is the conduct of our local federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer. Over the past couple of years, Vandemoer has intervened more and more often, seemingly on cue from Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, on issues that have nothing to do with the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. Examples: his recommendations that the town buy and convert into open space Larry LeBlanc’s 81-acre development site on the north side of Route 1 and the Westerly YMCA’s busted-out campground on Watchaug Pond.

He wrote the Nasty-gram to RIDEM over the sports lighting proposal, which, I think, qualifies as a pretty hostile act.

Maybe what we should really be concerned about is whether Charlie Vandemoer is sticking his federal nose just a little too much into Charlestown’s politics. Maybe we should be the ones upset at him.

It seems to me that Charlie Vandemoer will pretty much do whatever Ruth Platner needs done, and when it is most convenient to her agenda. If you dust the knife handle sticking out of Bill DiLibero’s back, I think you’ll find her fingerprints, and probably those of Charlie Vandemoer, too.

No, the U.S. Department of the Interior is not going to take Ninigret Park back from the town of Charlestown. Even if they were really, really pissed off at us, there are 55 acres that belong to the town free and clear. And as I documented, they don’t have the resources to go after the other 172.4 acres, either, even if they wanted to.

Don't be so scared of the feds,
Deputy Dan. You used to be one.
And if there are hurt feelings, or an adversarial environment, I think the CCA and Charlie Vandemoer have more to do with that than Bill DiLibero.

But there is this question for Charlestown voters to consider. Why is it that our two big brave CCA Town Councilors, Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery, don’t stand up for the town of Charlestown? Why is their reaction to this overblown dustup with Interior—assuming there in fact has been one, given that we only have CCA’s say-so about the alleged threats made by the feds—to immediately surrender our rights to the feds?

Slattery was a career federal bureaucrat in Washington. Gentz was a insurance industry executive. Both of them know how the feds operate. What is wrong with them that they don’t fight for us?

The CCA’s old leadership was in the forefront of the federal lawsuit against Interior over the Narragansetts’ land. They are still determined to fight Interior to the death over the tribe’s land use. Why are they calling for the town to surrender its sovereignty over its property in Ninigret Park?