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Monday, May 7, 2012

Charlestown asks court to issue ruling in its favor in Y-Gate lawsuit

Town files 92-page motion saying there is “no genuine dispute of material facts”
By Will Collette

Charlestown’s Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero filed a Motion for Summary Judgment with the state District Court asking the judge to rule in favor of the town in Donoghue v. Charlestown.

At issue is the Town Council’s 3-1-1 vote last February to hand over $475,000 to the Charlestown Land Trust to buy the Westerly YMCA’s abandoned campground on Watchaug Pond. Yep, it’s another story about Y-Gate, folks.

Dr. John Donoghue brought suit to block the sale arguing the Town violated the state Open Meetings law by inaccurately (actually, deceptively) advertising the agenda item and charging the YMCA Land Advisory Panel violated by Open Meetings Law by simply disregarding it – didn’t advertise meetings, didn’t keep or post minutes, etc.

The Town’s argument is that the YMCA Land Advisory Panel isn’t really a “public body” covered under the Open Meetings Law because of a variety of factors, most notably that it was custom designed to get around the Town Charter requirement that town committees be comprised of town residents.

The plan for an ad hoc committee to decide how to address the future of the Y camp was made on July 11, 2011. The Town Council decided to form the committee following the usual protocol for selecting such committees under the Town Charter. One of those protocols is the requirement that you must be a town resident to serve on a town committee.

The YMCA Land Advisory Panel was concocted
to allow non-residents, like JoAnne D'Alcomo
of Sonquipaugia to be a member
The Westerly YMCA, the Sonquipaug Association and other “stakeholders” either didn’t have, or didn’t want to appoint, actual Charlestown residents, so on September 12, 2011, this new configuration, the YMCA Land Advisory Panel, was created to get around the Town Charter to accommodate them .

At the time they did this, no one said this newly created body would also operate outside the open meetings and open records laws. If they had, I think recall petitions would have been filed at that time.

Read the entire town brief by clicking here

On February 13, 2012, this committee reported back that it wanted the town to fork over $475,000 to buy a conservation easement so the Charlestown Land Trust could then buy the property from the Westerly YMCA – and put the land under its private ownership.

This arrangement was a surprise, especially since the Land Trust’s proposal to the state Department of Environmental Management stated the local funds to match the state’s grant of $367,000 would come from private fund-raising and NOT Charlestown taxpayers.

At a loud and raucous meeting where virtually every speaker – except the stakeholders – blasted the scheme as a bad deal for Charlestown taxpayers, three Town Council members (Boss Tom Gentz, Gregg Avedisian and Marge Frank) voted to approve paying the $475,000. Lisa DiBello, to her credit, voted no. Deputy Dan Slattery recused himself because he lives next to the campground.

Dr. Donoghue filed his lawsuit shortly afterwards. His lawyer, local attorney Maggie Hogan, has been attempting to conduct “discovery” by getting relevant documents and conducting sworn depositions of witnesses. See an example of town resistance to her efforts by clicking here

The town’s motion was filed with the court on April 18. My apologies for the delay in reporting this, but my April 22 request for the records under the state Access to Public Records Act was not fulfilled until May 6.

I’m not a lawyer, so my opinion is simply that of a layperson. But I do have some skin in the game since Y-Gate involves my tax money and that of every other Charlestown taxpayer. If it turns out that the town slides out from under the Donoghue lawsuit on a legal technicality, it is still morally and ethically wrong to put so much public money - against the public's will - toward a private project that benefits very few people.. 

Almost exactly one year ago, on May 9, 2011, the Town Council killed a proposal from Ted Veasey and the same Westerly YMCA at the heart of this controversy. Then, Veasey and the Y had proposed to turn the trashed-out campground into a beautiful conservation development that even the Planning Commission liked.

But Planning Commissar Ruth Platner was also working behind the scenes with the Charlestown Land Trust to kill the Veasey project. Instead, in partnership with the non-resident vacation home owners in the Sonquipaug Association to the south of the camp, they hatched Y-Gate, which would use state and town taxpayer money to buy the land for private use, mostly by the Sonquipaug Association.

The public process required under the Town Charter didn’t work for them, so they crafted a new process that allowed them to rapidly devise their unpopular scheme and sprung it at the February 2012 Town Council meeting.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this stinks or to understand that Charlestown taxpayers are being taken for a ride. How the District Court responds to the Town’s motion, we’ll soon see. But ultimately, it will be up to Charlestown citizens, exercising their Constitutional rights to speak out, assemble and VOTE to make this right.