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Friday, May 18, 2012

Updated: The Planning Commission's Blacklist

UPDATED: Planning Commission turns down qualified candidate
Seems like she didn't charge enough, or is it something else?
By Will Collette

An update on this continuing story: at the Monday, May 14 Town Council meeting, the Council approved spending up to $4888 to hire an intern who will do various special projects, including Planning Commission member George Tremblay's pet project - cooking data on affordable housing to prove the state's law isn't working.

Council President Boss Tom Gentz told Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris that he wanted Tremblay's project (described in more detail below) to be the intern's top priority. Tremblay describes his plan in much greater detail on the CCA's "Oppressive Charlestown" blog - click here. If you read on and see Tremblay's e-mails on this project, this intern is in for a pretty rough summer.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Last December 7, a months-long struggle over Charlestown’s position on affordable housing came to a head. Throughout much of 2011, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s elected town officials, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and Town Council President Boss Tom Gentz, had been pushing a radical agenda that would have Charlestown lead a mob of rural Rhode Island towns in an effort to repeal the state’s affordable housing law.

Planning Commissar Ruth Platner
Their effort, which Progressive Charlestown dubbed the Platner-Gentz Affordable Housing Deconstruction Act, was rejected by the Town Council in favor of a far more restrained approach to seeking a reasonable accommodation between the state’s mandate that each city and town’s housing stock should include 10% affordable units and the interests of rural communities like Charlestown. See the December 7 meeting by clicking here

The Platner-Gentz effort failed in the Town Council, but the town Planning Commission, the hub of anti-affordable-housing ideologues, never gave up their fight against affordable housing.

One of the CCA-endorsed Planning Commission back-benchers, George Tremblay, got the idea that the Planning Commission should hire a consultant to collect eight years’ worth of affordable housing data for Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and Exeter. Put the data in a preheated pan with some cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and a touch of fresh herbs from Great Swamp Farm, and the numbers should show that southern rural Rhode Island communities really don’t need any new affordable housing construction.

And so began an ongoing saga, one that remains unsettled today.

I filed a request for the records of this saga under the state’s Access to Public Records Act and received the documents from Town Hall.

The records begin with this January 10, 2012, e-mail from Planning Commission member George Tremblay to Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris. Note that this e-mail arose from a discussion about collecting and collating affordable housing data at the Planning Commission’s special meeting on January 5, 2012. Click here to listen to the discussion   

The next day, then–Town Administrator Bill DiLibero sent Tremblay’s e-mail on to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero (click here and go to page 4), expressing concern that it is “somewhat over-reaching for a board member” to make such sweeping demands and claims. The Town Charter does not give town commissions the power to direct staff, only to advise. Ruggiero’s response is not in the record, presumably due to attorney-client privilege, but Tremblay moderated his imperious tone somewhat, at least for a short while.

Tremblay also sent a copy of an e-mail (click here and go to page 2) he had received from his son, who is, according to Tremblay, “part owner of a company that serves as an outside contractor for analysis of performance of various programs.” His son commented that Tremblay’s proposed project was partly a simple job of data collection, but also involved “policy analysis.” To do that job, said the younger Tremblay, the town would need a person with a “markedly higher level of sophistication in the relevant policy domain.” Tremblay’s son believed that the services of a consultant with that level of skill would cost in the $1,000- to $1,200-a-day range.

Essentially using Tremblay’s language, the town crafted a request for proposals and a list of potential consultants they felt had the right experience, talent and credentials to either do the job or recommend someone who could.

They received one proposal. It came from Melina Lodge, a Charlestown resident with impressive credentials. (Click here and go to pages 36-38 to see her February 23 proposal and resume.) She has served on both the Affordable Housing Commission and the Planning Commission (which turned out to be a minus as well as a plus). And her bid was nowhere near the $1,000-$1,200/day range Tremblay’s son had anticipated, but the bargain-basement price of $35 an hour.

Pretty good deal, right? Knows the town and its needs because she lives here. Knows the area. Impressive credentials (BA in Economics, master’s in Community Planning) and highly relevant work experience (WARM Center, Rhode Island Housing, Town of Cumberland Planning Department).

Hmmmm, not so fast, said George.

Then he sent this e-mail after what appears to have been a crash course on Melina Lodge’s past history with the Planning Commission:

Once again, Tremblay assumes powers – to make hiring decisions in this instance – that he does not have under the Town Charter. And then, Tremblay followed up with this:

First, it is not at all unusual for the town to award a contract when only one bidder responds to a Request for Proposals as long as the bidder is responsible and qualified and the bid amount is reasonable. The town did just that in recently awarding the Blue Shutters Beach concession contract to Johnny Angel’s. 

But, wow, there’s George Tremblay’s “bombshell” that Melina Lodge has “a conflict of interest” because she’s on the Board of Directors of “a major corporate developer of LMIH (low and moderate income housing)?” OMG!

It’s true that Melina Lodge is on the board of directors – of the Women’s Development Corporation, which is one of Rhode Island’s best nonprofit affordable housing developers. But obviously, Tremblay did not get Commissar Platner's memo that the Planning Commission's official position is that they hate FOR-PROFIT developers but LOVE NON-PROFIT developers.The WDC is exactly the kind of nonprofit housing organization that our Planning Commission has professed to love and in no way deserving of being smeared as “a major corporate developer.”

Yet, in this instance, George Tremblay considers association with the WDC to be a disqualifying factor. Others might call it slander.

So, on March 14, Tremblay e-mailed Ashley and DiLibero telling them that he planned to get the topic of reissuing the request for proposals on the Planning Commission agenda. He also told them that he rewrote the specifications “to cast a wider net.” (Click here and go to page 15 for the revised RFP.)

After rejecting Melina Lodge, despite her impressive array of credentials and experience, local roots, Charlestown residency, and bargain price, Tremblay decided to try to see if he can find somebody better.

Here’s what Tremblay told the Planning Commission he wants:

The Planning Commission did meet to discuss this project and what they wanted, but without coming to any final conclusions (listen to the discussion by clicking here). Tremblay wanted to put in $10,000 as the amount they had budgeted (if they had accepted Melina’s bid, $10,000 would have bought 286 hours of her time) and to send it to every imaginable consultant prospect in the Western Hemisphere. Except Melina (just kidding – he really didn’t say that). The subject was held over to their April 5 “workshop.”

At the April 5 meeting, Ashley reported she had a landscape architecture student interested in interning for Charlestown (that intern probably doesn’t know much about Charlestown).

She suggested that some of the simple data-collection aspects of this project could be done by the intern. The Planning Commissioners looked at the Scope of Work in Tremblay’s Request for Proposals and decided there were several items that could be done by an intern.

Tremblay offered to rewrite the RFP (again). The issue was held over again to the April 25th meeting, but was not discussed because Tremblay didn’t show up.

There’s a quote that has been attributed to many different public figures, but I remember it best when it was used by former U.S. EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus: “Statistics are like a captured spy – torture them enough and they’ll say anything.”

George Tremblay’s venture into the wilds of affordable housing statistics brings that quote to mind. It's just not that easy to find a qualified professional who is willing to water-board the data to produce the desired result.

If you look at his behavior in this affair, you may see, as I do, not just the typical CCA bias and unfairness, but also recklessness and lack of care for the town’s welfare and resources.

He decided – for amazingly wrong reasons – to blacklist an eminently qualified professional who not only could do exactly what the Request for Proposals called for, but would also do it honestly – and for less than half what Tremblay proposed to have the town spend. If she had been hired, this project would probably be done already.

Whether he decided to blacklist Lodge on his own, for his own reasons, or whether he consulted with his chief, Planning Commissar Platner, the record doesn’t say. But what the record does show is remarkable arrogance from the get-go and terrible judgment.