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Monday, June 4, 2012

Our Federal Overseer Charlie Vandemoer: Dupe or Duplicitous?

PART 1: Why did the manager of the National Wildlife Refuge become such a powerful political player in Charlestown?
By Will Collette

The federal government’s “face” in Charlestown is that of Charlie Vandemoer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s manager of the national wildlife refuges in southern Rhode Island and Block Island, including the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.

Though he has been in that position for years, just in the past three years, Vandemoer has brought the weight of the federal government into an increasing number of hot Charlestown political issues. 

These include the current fight over the town’s management of Ninigret Park as well as wind turbines, the dark-sky ordinance, Y-Gate, the “Kill Bill” campaign, Larry LeBlanc’s 81-acre site for either a wind farm or large housing complex, sports lights, Mud Cove, the Ninigret Dog Park, deer, bunnies and trees.

The final installment in Frank Glista’s series on Charlestown’s role in World War II featured Vandemoer’s dubious decisions that thwarted the installation of a display memorializing the Ninigret Naval Auxiliary Air Field. 

When I first saw Vandemoer intervening in more and more political situations and heard about the trouble he gave Frank Glista over the “Ninigret Bomb,” I was curious to learn more about Vandemoer’s political actions.

I started by asking Vandemoer for an interview. I left him a phone message, which he never returned. 

Then I sent him an e-mail that said You have become a central figure in many of these issues and I would like to hear your side, including your reasons for becoming so involved in town politics.”

Vandemoer responded on April 30 to decline my request, saying “it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the local politics of Charlestown, and therefore I respectfully decline your request.”

As he did with Frank Glista, Vandemoer answered a different question than the one he was asked. I wasn't asking for general commentary on Charlestown politics - that, indeed, is none of his business - but about his own specific involvement in Charlestown politics.

Since he wouldn’t talk to me, I filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request with the Interior Department to obtain the record of Vandemoer’s communications with town officials. The Interior Department sent me a CD containing those extensive records.

What I learned from these files is that Charlie Vandemoer routinely intervenes in town political issues without any record of a request or question from the town.

His interventions may have been prompted by some private communication, such as a visit or phone call, but whatever or whoever has prompted Vandemoer to take such a keen interest in Charlestown politics did not make it onto the CD provided by the Interior Department under FOIA. I must assume such records do not exist or else it would be a violation of the Freedom of Information Act for them to be withheld.

Of all the interventions by Vandemoer, perhaps the most damaging was his letter to the RI Department of Environmental Management on January 6, 2012, aimed at killing the funding for dark-sky friendly sports lighting at Ninigret Park.

I should note that, in addition to my FOIA request to the Interior Department, I also filed a RI Access to Public Records Act request with Charlestown to get any record of communications they had from or to Charlie Vandemoer regarding sports lighting. Other than Vandemoer’s letter to RIDEM, the town said they had nothing.

So according to both Interior and Charlestown records, the first thing Charlie Vandemoer did when he heard about the sports lighting proposal was write a letter to kill the state funding. The record shows no effort by Vandemoer to discuss the matter with town officials to see if some neighborly accommodation could be made. There is no record showing whether Vandemoer was asked to do this by someone who opposed the lights.

Vandemoer’s letter to RIDEM was cc’d to the Town of Charlestown. Town Clerk Amy Weinreich told me in an e-mail she then circulated the letter to all the members of the Town Council.

Shortly thereafter, CCA Town Council member Deputy Dan Slattery swung into action, starting a sequence of events that led to Town Administrator Bill DiLibero’s firing and the still-unresolved controversy over the town’s management of Ninigret Park.

In the Interior Department records provided under FOIA, there are a string of e-mails between Deputy Dan and Vandemoer.

At some point in mid-February, Slattery and Vandemoer met at the Kettle Pond NWR center. Vandemoer gave Slattery the now-famed  “50-page historical document” that included several – but not all – of the key documents surrounding the conversion of the decommissioned Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Air Field into a National Wildlife Refuge and into the town’s Ninigret Park.

Deputy Dan Slattery concludes Vandemoer
is the victim of Charlestown's poor morals
According to these e-mails, Deputy Dan quickly jumped to this conclusion  : “I don’t think Charlestown is in compliance and I think we are open to a lawsuit if we proceed of the lights without permission for the FWS.” He shared this conclusion with CCA Town Council President Boss Tom Gentz by cc'ing him on his e-mail..

There were some problems with Deputy Dan’s quick-trigger reaction – Vandemoer had already killed the RIDEM lighting proposal and without that funding, there weren’t any lights to install. And there are many other problems with that conclusion detailed below.

But no matter, contrary facts will never impede a Deputy Dan posse from riding out after evildoers.

On March 1, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero wanted to see key missing records – the deeds and the environmental impact statement done on the base conversion – before buying into Deputy Dan’s new posse.

That same day, Vandemoer sent Deputy Dan the deed to the 172 acres of Ninigret Park that were given to Charlestown on the condition that the land uses were “not inconsistent with” the wildlife refuge.

Ruggiero wanted to see the actual documents
Vandemoer did not have a copy of the deed to the 55 acres the town bought from General Services Administration (GSA) to use for municipal purposes.

As for the Environmental Impact Statement, Vandemoer wouldn’t let it out of his office. If the town wanted to see it, they would have to come to him.

Later, Vandemoer sent a copy of the deed to the town’s 55 acres and wrote to Deputy Dan that “My reading of the land transfer agreement indicates that the management of the lands “not inconsistent with” the refuge applies to the 55 acres as well, since the transfer document referred to and applies to all lands to be transferred to the town.”

Vandemoer’s “reading.” is just as problematic as Deputy Dan's snap judgment, for the following reasons.

One is that Vandemoer is not qualified to render such a legal judgment. 

Second, the town lands that comprise Ninigret Park were conveyed in two separate transactions. The 172 acres came to the town through the Interior Department’s National Park Service’s (NPS’s) Federal Lands to Parks Program. Charlestown bought the other 55 acres later on, directly from the GSA, for $279,000 on June 18, 1982. Again, click here to read the deed for yourself.

Third, the deed to the 55 acres contains no restrictions on the town’s use of the land and no authority for any federal agency to oversee or overrule town activities on its 55 acres, except a civil rights clause that forbids the town from engaging in discrimination.

Fourth, Vandemoer works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service – which is not part of or under the National Park Service. His job is to manage the National Wildlife Refuges in southern RI and Block Island, and he does a very fine job at that; they are beautiful natural wonders and well worth Vandemoer’s full-time attention. And on that point, Vandemoer does not have jurisdiction over Ninigret Park, either the 172 acres, where the National Park Service retains some jurisdiction, or the town’s 55 acres, which Charlestown owns free and clear.

The regional director of the National Parks Service’s Federal Lands to Parks program, Elyse LaForest, came to Charlestown in 2002 and said flatly that the feds had no jurisdiction over the town’s 55 acres.

Even Deputy Dan thought Charlie might be wrong and actually said so in a March 23 e-mail: “Hi Charlie: I’m confused a bit. If you read the deed and think that the 55 acres must be managed consistently with the rest of the Park as indicated in the Land Transfer for the 172 acres….what does can be used for municipal purposes mean?”

While this e-mail dialogue continued between Deputy Dan and Charlie Vandemoer, Deputy Dan was working on his resolutions to fix the problems between Charlestown and the feds - problems, I should add that appear to have been largely the product of Deputy Dan's and Charlie Vandemoer's fevered imaginations..

In Part 2 of “Vandemoer: Dupe or Duplicitous,” I’ll detail (and document) what happened when Deputy Dan toked up on “moral, ethical and legal” outrage fueled by the line he had been fed by Charlie Vandemoer.