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Saturday, May 12, 2012

CRACed CRABs finish crunching the Charter

Chewed it up and spit it out
By Will Collette

One of the great achievements of the Charlestown Charter Revision Advisory Committee in its final days is they finally realized they were calling themselves by the wrong name all along. From the beginning, they had called themselves the Charter Revision Advisory Board – even though I pointed them toward the section of the Charter that actually gives them their name. In the end, they realized I was right.

So how can you expect a group that apparently didn’t even look at the section of the Town Charter that defines their role (as well as give them their name) to read and understand the rest of the Town Charter well enough to make intelligent suggestions to the Town Council for Charter changes to send to the voters in November?

Well, apparently the answer is that you can’t. The CRAC’d CRABS were told by the public, including the chairs of most of Charlestown’s Town Commissions, as well as the town department heads that all their proposals were some combination of unnecessary, redundant, unworkable or even potentially harmful to the town. But apparently they didn’t listen to input any more than they actually read and understood the Charter because much of what they originally proposed came out as final recommendations.

But I will give them credit for making at least some changes. Let’s start with those.

Term Limits on Zoning Deleted. This item was originally Question 2. The most controversial of their original ideas was to change the Town Charter to imposed term limits on membership on the Town Zoning Board – and no other board or commission in town. 

This idea was not only bad on its face, but proof positive that the members signed up for CRAC with bias and the intention to punish those they held responsible for the blocked Whalerock Wind Farm proposal. Nearly all of the CRACers are members of Ill Wind RI, the NIMBY group that formed to stop the Whalerock project. But fortunately, they decided to drop the Zoning term limits proposal.

Ordinance Review. This is a new proposal that may have been drawn from one of my own recommendations. I had written that what Charlestown really needs is a way to look through the Town’s Code of Ordinances for those ordinances that are out-dated, unnecessary, unenforceable or otherwise useless for the betterment or protection of Charlestown

Eliminating stupid ordinances is a good idea
A new Question Seven proposes to amend the Charter to create an Ad Hoc Ordinance Review Committee that would conduct an on-going search and review of just such ordinances. I doubt it was simply the force of logic that brought this question forward – perhaps it was Donna Chambers’ way of ensuring that I wouldn’t criticize everything in their proposal package.

If that was the intent, it worked, because I think this Question makes sense.

Missed Opportunity. For a time, it appeared the CRAC’d CRABs were going to add another good idea to their list – a Charter change that would reduce the frequency of Charter changes. Why does the Charter have to be changed every two years instead of a much longer interval – as long as four, six or even ten years? Regrettably, this proposal died at the very end of the CRACers process.

Here is a capsule description of the other six questions, each some version of the original questions the CRAC’d CRABs brought to the February 27 public hearing (where they were roundly condemned by most of the town’s Commission Chairs and department heads). The CRACers also made two strong recommendations to the Council for actions they should take.

Click here to read their proposed Charter Revision questions. Before these proposals can go to Charlestown voters for their final approval on Election Day, November 6, they must be approved by the Town Council (they go before the Council on Monday, May 14, and then to a public hearing on June 11) and by the state.

Question One would require any land acquisition that costs Charlestown $50,000 above and beyond the amount that would come out of an existing voter-approved bond (e.g. Open Space/Recreation or Affordable Housing) or outside funding (state or private) to be put before the voters for their approval.

Comment: the final proposal is a big improvement over what the CRACers rolled out last February. People more devious and clever than I will look for loopholes, of course.

Question Two used to be Question Three, but moved up when the CRACers deleted their Zoning Board term limits proposal. This proposal on partnership would require notice, disclosure and a hearing (a process that would take at least two, and probably more, months) before Charlestown can enter into a partnership with any other entity.

Comment: This question arises from the CRACers anger with the old Town Council for entering into a partnership with Larry LeBlanc’s Whalerock LLC wind turbine project. Nearly the entire CRAC are members of the NIMBY group that are fighting that project. What’s that old saying about when to close the barn door? And is the Charter revision process the right place to act out personal vendettas?

Question Three changes the Charter changes that voters approved two years ago that govern when town purchases must be put out to bid.

Comment: At the February CRAB CRACer hearing, Present Acting Town Administrator Pat Anderson, speaking on behalf of the town department heads, recommended against this proposal because the town had just gotten used to the changes mandated by the 2010 Charter changes. But the CRAC has made it clear it does not trust anyone in town government – whether they are staff or other volunteer Commission members, so they dug in their heels on this proposal, despite the lack of all public support aside from honorary CRACer Mike Chambers.

Question Four would mandate that the highest Town Council vote-getter must become Council President and the #2 must become Vice-President.

Comment: The CRACers were told this is a town tradition and is generally followed except when the Council majority opposed the top vote-getters in the election. They were also told that forcing a Council majority to accept the leadership of their opponents was a formula for Council gridlock. But the CRACers didn’t care. Maybe they like Council gridlock.

Question Five would insert a mandate that the Town craft and maintain a 5-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) because, the CRAC – and Deputy Dan Slattery and Commissar Platner – believe there is no existing Charter provision for such.

Getting pay-back for Mike
Comment: The CRAC, Deputy Dan and Commissar Platner are wrong. There are actually two provisions in the Town Charter requiring a 5-year CapitalImprovement Plan. It is a Charter mandate on the Town Administrator to be carried out through delegated staff and aided by the Planning Commission. Second, the Charter requires town compliance with state law and state law clearly sets out the duty to craft a Capital Improvement Plan. But Deputy Dan wants this – and his word is law with the majority of the CRACers – and most of the CRACers haven't read the Charter for themselves. This proposal is unnecessary and redundant, but probably harmless.

Question Six adds an additional month to the process of picking people to fill volunteer positions on Town boards and commissions.

Comment: This is another vengeance item, this time over the perceived slight felt by honorary CRACer Mike Chambers that his application for the Zoning Board didn’t land him a seat. Clearly, the only way to address this terrible injustice to Chambers is to change the Town Charter. This proposal survived on a tie 3 to 3 vote. It will make it harder for Commissions to fill slots and, when combined with one of the two strong recommendations the CRACers are making to the Town Council, will have a chilling effect on volunteer participation in town governance. This may even free up slots so that Mike Chambers will have his pick of positions. So long as he’s willing to wait.

New Question Seven is the proposal I described earlier that would set up an on-going review of Town Ordinances and it’s obviously something I support.

Then there are the CRAC’d CRABs two strong recommendations to the Council. The first suggests the Council figure out some way to limit the number of land use proposals the town will accept for any particular piece of property.

This recommendation is yet another outgrowth of the CRACers negative experience with Larry LeBlanc. LeBlanc has made multiple proposals for his 81 acres on Route 1. These include the Whalerock industrial wind farm, multiple versions of housing developments, a sale to the Narragansetts with the veiled threat that it would be used to build an Indian casino and who knows what else down the line. 

I understand their frustration but this proposed limitation is the wrong way to go. I’d love to see some negotiation with LeBlanc to find a reasonable price for the Town to buy LarryLand and make that problem go away.

Their second recommendation is another pay-back proposal seeking to assuage Mike Chambers’ pique over not being picked for the Zoning Board. The CRACers recommend the Town Council interview each and every person who volunteers for a town board or commission or is up for a renewal of their term. That ought to really help streamline town government.

This would have been a great idea if it had been in place before the members of the Charter Revision Advisory Committee were given their seats where they could carry out their personal vendettas and do mischief to the town. But then there’s that barn door thing again.