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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Gentz Rule: Déjà vu all over again

Town Council Boss concocts new rule on length of commission member terms
"I'm the Boss and I make the rules"
By Will Collette

One of the many errors made by Charlestown’s CCA Party town leaders in the Whalerock case is the one made by Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA Party). 

On July 8, Gentz decided to set aside the almost automatic renewal of the terms for four members of the Zoning Board of Review (ZBR) until the ZBR Whalerock hearings were completed.

One of those members, Bill Meyer, will see his current 5-year term expire on July 31. All three ZBR alternates, Amanda McGee, Scott Northrup and David Provancha, serve one year terms that also expire on July 31. 

Starting August 1, based on state law and the town charter, the Zoning Board will not be able to muster a quorum.

Gentz made the astounding claim that his motion protects the Whalerock proceedings by providing “continuity” when it’s far more likely it will have the opposite effect.

Gentz was backed up by the ever-accommodating Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero who agreed with Gentz’s concocted new rule that town board and commission members can serve past the expiration of their terms until a replacement is named. Apparently, neither of them remember - or paid any attention to - what happened the last time this issue came up five years ago. Read on to learn what history teaches us.

The problem with this new “Gentz Rule” is that there is no legal basis for it in the Rhode Island General Laws which even contain a section specific to Charlestown (click here for RIGL 45-24-56 and see subsection g. for Charlestown).

There is no provision for a board or commission member to serve past the expiration date of their terms in the Charlestown Home Rule Charter either. The lesson Gentz keeps having to relearn is that just because he makes something up doesn’t make it true.

One local attorney with frequent business before the Zoning Board of Review told me “If I had a contested case right now [before the ZBR], I would not proceed until the members were reappointed.” Of course, the big contested case before the ZBR right now is Whalerock. The other is Shelter Cove. And there are others in the pipeline.

Gentz says that delaying action on ZBR members’ reappointments will ensure “continuity” for the Whalerock proceedings. But wouldn’t simply reappointing them as recommended by the ZBR Chair not only ensure “continuity” but also eliminate anyone from thinking – as I do – that Gentz is attempting to blackmail these ZBR members into supporting his anti-Whalerock position?

The only circumstance that would affect Whalerock “continuity” is if Gentz had other people lined up to replace the current ZBR members. Since their re-appointments were on the consent agenda for the July 8 Council meeting, meaning that their re-appointments were uncontested, that would seem to preclude that possibility.

Unless, of course, Gentz really does have replacements in mind but won’t identify them unless the four ZBR members with expiring terms don’t vote his way.

The new “Gentz Rule” sends a chilling message to other ZBR members, and for that matter, members of all other town boards and commissions that if you don’t follow Boss Gentz’s line, you will be replaced.

If Charlestown fails to make a deal with Larry LeBlanc to end the long-running Whalerock saga by buying his land for open space, you can bet that Boss Gentz’s clumsy attempt at coercion of the ZBR members will feature prominently in Whalerock’s next lawsuit in RI Superior Court.

As closely as I follow Boss Gentz’s activities and try my best to understand how and why he does things, this one is pretty crazy, even for him. Fabricating the Gentz Rule from out of whole cloth and then wrapping it in non sequiturs doesn’t seem very smart.

Extortion isn’t smart either because in addition to handing LeBlanc a likely Superior Court victory, this is the kind of act that might draw the attention of the Attorney General. The penalties for extortion by a public official are pretty harsh.

Some five-year old history Gentz has clearly forgotten (or ignored)

It’s ironic that Gentz would try this stunt given that one of the CCA Party’s big issues with Jim Mageau arose over his 2008 veto of Dr. Milton Krantz’s re-appointment to the Zoning Board. Go to Clerkbase and read the minutes for the July 21, 2008 Town Council meeting.

Mageau and Krantz had a long history of animosity that sometimes got physical. Mageau clearly didn’t like Krantz and decided he would simply block his reappointment. 

Then – and here’s the good part – the question arose from Councilor Harriet Allen (a CCA Party founder and major donor) about what would happen if ZBR members with expiring terms weren’t reappointed. 

Then-Town Solicitor Bob Craven said that would be a big problem, especially if it meant the ZBR could not assemble a quorum.

Craven noted the town’s zoning ordinance is silent on the matter of members serving beyond their term expiration. He said he believed the town had a legal duty to have a functioning Zoning Board. So, he believed, members with expired terms could continue. 

However, Craven’s assistant took the opposite point of view, saying that under the law, members have terms and when those terms end, they end.

Craven said if something as extreme as having members with expired terms and no replacements occurred – a circumstance the Gentz Rule creates after July 31 – he would advise the ZBR members to keep coming to meetings. He said otherwise it would be embarrassing for Charlestown to have to explain to a Superior Court justice why it couldn’t come up with full membership for its Zoning Board.

But Craven admitted this was uncharted territory. Mageau said that this was a question that might have to go to Superior Court anyway.

At the following month’s Town Council meeting on August 12, 2008, Dr. Krantz withdrew his name from consideration for reappointment to the Zoning Board. He did so with a blast at Mageau, but also added this statement about members serving beyond the expiration of their terms:

“Despite our solicitor’s verbal opinion that I and the two (2) alternates would continue to serve until replaced, there are no assurances that the composition of the Board and my status as a legally constituted voting member would not be challenged in Superior Court by an aggrieved applicant or politically motivated individual. 

The risk presented could result in invalidating applicant approvals given by the Board until this stalemate is broken. This could place the Town in legal jeopardy and harm innocent citizens who simply want to proceed with a land use project.”

The Town Council then appointed none other than Bill Meyer, the ZBR member whose term is in limbo because of the Gentz Rule, to replace Dr. Krantz. They also reappointed the two alternates.

Dr. Krantz and his wife Bernice were among the founders of the CCA Party and served as officers until selling their Charlestown home and moving out of state last year. Even though Dr. Krantz could have gone with Bob Craven’s untested opinion that he could serve on the ZBR beyond the expiration of his term, as an honorable man, he chose to put the town’s interests above his own.

Too bad Dr. Krantz isn’t around to remind his CCA Party colleague Boss Gentz that public service is more important than scoring cheap political points.