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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What it costs Charlestown taxpayers to wage endless war against the Narragansetts

And for what purpose?
Camp Davis: the next battleground in the CCA Party's
war on the Narragansetts?
By Will Collette

The Narragansett Indian Tribe has had a hard time with the white settlers since the Great Swamp Massacre in 1675 when Massachusetts and Connecticut militias nearly exterminated the tribe. 

The tribe’s lands were taken and divided up among the white settlers and many of the surviving tribe members were sold into slavery

The tribe kept its traditions and identity alive against all odds and, in the 1970s, they fought to win back at least a little of what they lost, by winning federal recognition that they exist and by bringing suit to reclaim nearly the entire land mass of Charlestown. 

That lawsuit resulted in the RI Indian Lands Settlement Act and Joint Memorandum of Understanding that gave the tribe the bulk of its present tribal lands in Charlestown on the pledge they would accept restrictions on that land, among them being no gaming establishments without the town’s approval.

In recent years, Charlestown taxpayers have paid more than $300,000 to the ethically-challenged, controversial ex-East Providence mayor Joe Larisa to serve as “Town Solicitor for Indian Affairs” to fight the Narragansett Indian Tribe on anything the Tribe wants to do. 

He pursues that task with zeal, earning him the label of “racist” by tribal elders and leaders.

I wrote an earlier article about Larisa and his activities after a long struggle with the Town to force them to comply with the state’s open records act. I had asked for copies of Larisa’s bills to the town and the record of the town’s payments to him. I felt the public had a right to know what we were getting for our $300,000.

At first, the town responded by sending me all of Larisa’s bills with virtually everything except his letterhead blacked out with Magic Marker®. I appealed and eventually got the town to release the uncensored bills. Click here to see the censored bills and click here for the uncensored bills.

Camp Davis land swap stirs up more anti-Narragansett action by CCA Town Council majority

Lately, Charlestown’s CCA Party-led Town Council has been holding closed door meetings to try to figure out how what to do about a plan by the RI Department of Transportation to transfer former Camp Davis to the Tribe to compensate for Providence land needed for highway construction.

The Camp Davis property cuts the Tribe’s settlement lands in half and getting that land back unites the land and restores an important part of the Narragansett heartland around Schoolhouse Pond.

This transaction poses a public relations problem for the CCA Party leadership. To openly attack the deal would open up old wounds and expose the CCA Party to more charges that they are motivated by racism, as some Tribal leaders have publicly said.

Because I learned from sources that Joe Larisa was in on a lot of Council meetings, I asked for an update on Joe Larisa’s bills to see what he's been up to. I recently received eleven months’ worth, stretching from July 2012 to May 2013 . 

The Town didn't try blacking out the information this time, although they have just begun a new public records policy that is far worse. But for now, there is a new batch of Larisa you can click here to see. 

These records may be the last you will see in a while, since the town, through Town Administrator Mark "Stonewall" Stankiewicz, has imposed a near embargo on open records requests. 

In their latest response for Larisa's June bills, Town Clerk Amy Weinreich replied on July 25 that "I do not have or maintain the requested records." That means that she, as custodian of town records, can no longer put her hands on Larisa's bills even though they are just a few feet away in the Town Treasurer's office. 

I have filed charges with the state Attorney General that Charlestown is violating the Access to Public Records Act. Click here. More on that later.

Larisa has a contract that requires the town to pay him $2,050 every month whether or not he does anything. 

If he does extra work, such as litigation, he will bill the town an extra $130 an hour. 

Non-litigation work, such as reading the newspaper, talking on the phone to Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA Party), going to a meeting or two, doing e-mails, etc. are covered by the $2,050 a month retainer.

Over those eleven months, Charlestown taxpayers paid Larisa a total of $22,550. In return, he reported doing 45.5 hours of work for an average of $495.60 an hour.

After looking at and tabulating Larisa’s description of what he did during those 45.5 hours, I found that he only dealt with five topics. Here they are, ranked by how much time he spent on each:
  1. Camp Davis land transfer from RIDOT to the Tribe with land use restrictions. Based on Larisa’s bills, it appears he started on this last September when it was still in the conceptual stage. This total does not include the month of June, when RIDOT's purchase of Camp Davis became public and the town started holding a string of closed door Executive Sessions. As noted above, my request for Larisa's June bill - which will probably double the amount of time he has spent on Camp Davis - was denied.  Current total (not counting June): 13.25 hours
  2. “Carcieri Fix.” This is pretty much a matter of Larisa searching the Internet to see whether Congress plans to enact legislation to restore the rights of over 500 Indian tribes who lost substantial sovereignty rights after the Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision. Total: 11.75 hours
  3. “NIT Zoning.” This is an effort by the Town to assert jurisdiction over the Tribe’s longhouse (tribal headquarters) construction project and to work out construction details before the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Total: 8.5 hours
  4. “APRA requests.” This includes 5.5 hours Larisa spent trying to stonewall my requests for his invoices under the state open records law. I also discovered by looking at these bills that Larisa also spent 2.5 hours dealing with an open records request from Chris Keegan at the Westerly Sun for records relating to the Tribe’s aborted senior citizens housing project. Total: 8 hours
  5. Narragansett casino. Larisa prepped and then accompanied Boss Gentz, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Acting Town Administrator Pat Anderson on a meeting with Governor Lincoln Chafee to discuss the non-existent Charlestown casino. There is no casino proposal on the table and hasn't been for over 20 years. Even if there was a pending or likely proposal, the economics of gaming has changed so much that an Indian casino in Charlestown is irrational fear on its face. But it’s a good “fear factor” issue for the CCA Party and a steady revenue stream for Larisa. Total: four hours.
In my opinion, Larisa has done an incredible amount of harm to the people of Charlestown. He has fanned the flames between non-Indian residents and Tribal members not to serve any public good, but for his own profit and based on his own political agenda.

We are in a perpetual state of war with our neighbors and we have paid Larisa over $300,000 to lead the charge. There is a terrible and shameful history around the treatment of the Narragansetts by the white settlers and the many generations of their descendants. Charlestown is overdue for a serious discussion about the justice of our town's actions against the Tribe.

After the Great Swamp Massacre, most surviving Narragansetts
were sold into slavery
In The Historical Story of Charlestown, by Frances Wharton Mandeville (1979, Charlestown Historical Society) we learn that “in Rhode Island, slavery began in rather an unusual manner. Our first slaves were not Negroes….It is an unpleasant surprise that the first slaves in our colony were Narragansett and Niantic Indians.” [Page 24].

According to contemporary records, after the Great Swamp Massacre, the surviving Indians were brought to Providence where “the Indians were sold into bondage, the average price being 32 shillings or 12 bushels of corn.” 

In 1755, almost 40% of Charlestown's population were slaves.
Rhode Island abolished the ownership of slaves in the state in 1787.
Ironically, the Indians taught the settlers how to grow corn so they wouldn't starve to death. 

Some of the survivors were sold to Charlestown landowners. 

According to Frances Wharton Mandeville, “Charlestown’s ratio [in 1755] was ‘712 white settlers to 418 slaves.’” [Page 25]

I do not accuse the CCA Party for the Great Swamp Massacre and the subsequent land grab and slavery. 

I do accuse them of gross insensitivity to history. In fact, rather than acknowledge this history, I've heard CCA people and some of our anonymous troll commenters call the Narragansetts “N*****s from Providence.”

The Narragansetts are our neighbors. They have a legal, moral and historical right to be here. The current secret planning by the CCA Party Town Council majority to try to thwart the Camp Davis land swap is wrong on so many levels. Charlestown needs to end its war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Ending Larisa’s contract would be an outstanding first step.