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Thursday, December 29, 2016

New Year, New Council, New start

Thinking about ways to make Charlestown a better place for all
By Will Collette

Image result for charlestown ri new years eve bonfire
Don't miss Charlestown's 10th Annual (and possibly last)
New Year's Eve bonfire at Ninigret Park at sundown
Since the launch of Progressive Charlestown in 2011, we’ve offered an alternative voice to Charlestown residents.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance, the town’s dominant political party, started in 2006 to fight then Town Council President and former Democrat Jim Mageau. The CCA had effectively drowned out all other voices.

They still do and as a result, the CCA Party has controlled the town of Charlestown since 2008. CCA endorsed candidates currently hold every elected position in town.

But I have a feeling that this year could be different. For the first time in six years, the Town Council is no longer controlled by CCA Party hardline ideologues.

This could open the door to some honest discussion about issues that have long been ignored, and consideration of ideas that could benefit all in this town, not just those who support the CCA Party.

We also have a recent, unifying issue cutting across political divisions: opposition to Amtrak's proposed rail relocation program.

In the hope that new Town Council leadership will bring a new open-mindedness to ideas not necessarily emanating from the CCA Party Steering Committee, I offer this outline of ideas worth a fresh look.

I have written about most of them in the past and plan to write more about them in the future. But in the meantime, in the spirit of a new year and a greatly re-shuffled Town Council, let’s think about what Charlestown can do to make itself a better place to live, work and play.

Tax policy

Building Photo
Owned by the Quonochontaug Central Fire District which does not have
any capacity to fight fires: 12.72 acres, tennis courts, patio, etc.
Prime location in Quonnie. 
Valuation: $89,800 even though
it is worth millions.
Let’s dispense with the rhetoric about Charlestown’s tax rate being so low – Charlestown's taxes are low only because we offer virtually none of the customary municipal services. You have to buy those services à la carte from private vendors.

Instead, let’s resolve long-standing tax disparity issues such as glaring zoning misclassifications and the town’s two “fake” fire districts. These cause wild disparities in the valuation of properties and the resulting tax.

Let’s think creatively about how to use tax incentives to promote good civic policies such as energy efficiency, green energy, green building and historical preservation.

Reconciliation with the Narragansett Indian Tribe

For the first time since its inception, the CCA Party dropped the rhetoric about casinos from its Party campaign platform. That’s a good sign.

Most Charlestown residents, except perhaps some newcomers, understand how some Charlestown leaders use code words – “casino” is key among them - and signs to communicate town government’s opposition to, if not hatred for, the Tribe.

Unfortunately, the town continues to retain attorney Joe Larisa who is paid by the town to watch every move the Tribe makes and to mount challenges. Narragansett leaders have called Larisa a racist. Through our taxes, we all pay his retainer of close to $25,000 a year.

If the Charlestown town government no longer considers the Tribe to be a threat, then it’s time to say goodbye to Larisa.

At present, the Tribe is undergoing substantial leadership turmoil which I’m sure they will eventually sort out. But isn’t it time that Charlestown came to terms with the Tribe’s right to respect as the sovereign Indian nation that it is?

Broader Environment Action

Regulating land use and open space is Charlestown’s top priority. Our new Town Council President Virginia Lee sees water protection as a top priority. I agree that both issues are of vital importance. 

However, water protection must be about more than Quonnie. And there are lots more environmental issues in Charlestown than open space.

Environmental issues tend to be interconnected and also intertwined with economic issues. While preserving land and water are and should be top priorities, I hope we can begin to pay more attention to other issues that also affect our health, safety and quality of life.

The new Town Council seemed to show a new understanding of how issues are connected by unanimously voting to oppose the controversial proposed Burrillville natural gas plant. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner made the argument that it’s the network of North-South trails that makes the Burrillville fight Charlestown’s fight, but I think it's broader than that.

I do applaud the Council for its resolution against the Burrillville proposal, despite its distance. But perhaps they will also consider engaging in the debate over the safety of the notorious Millstone Nuclear Power plant outside New London. That plant is only about 20 miles upwind from Charlestown.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Time to really regulate quarries and sand pits.
Time to reclaim the more than 20 apparent present and former sites
Other environmental issues that have been downplayed by previous CCA Party administrations also need attention, such as our lagging recycling and waste management efforts.

We have taken a few baby steps such as promoting the use of reusable grocery bags and trying to cut energy use in town buildings. That’s fine, but we must do a whole lot more.

We have to stop wringing our hands and helplessly tolerate a real blight – the dozens of unregulated active and abandoned quarries and sand pits scattered across Charlestown.

Our energy policy, to date, has been mostly focused on treating wind energy as a form of blight. We are fast approaching Donald Trump’s inauguration which is sure to usher in a reversal of federal efforts to address climate change. It will be up to states and municipalities to do all they can to protect lives and property by addressing the issue of climate change. Charlestown could be a leader in promoting green energy use.

I doubt that spending taxpayer money on a dubious plan to elevate fancy oceanfront properties is the answer, but I do believe we need to start looking for more forward thinking policies here in Charlestown.

Business and job development

Shopkeepers tried to make a living in Charlestown. Couldn't. 
Contrary to some impressions, the majority of Charlestown households consist of working families. But most of those working people have to get in their cars and drive to jobs elsewhere because there are few jobs here in town other than seasonal service and minor construction work.

In the past, Charlestown has made it hard for businesses to survive or for new businesses to emerge. It has made it hard to try to work for a living.

There are some simple things the town to help the 4,069 Charlestown residents (out of a total population of 7,741) who are trying to work for a living. E.g. set up an opportunity for a new business to be able to sit down with the town’s zoning, planning, wastewater management and licensing officials around the table to address all the start-up issues at once.

Some measures will take more time, effort and perhaps expense. For example, we need a link to public transportation – RIPTA, AMTRAK and the MTA.

We could use our tax policy to provide incentives for efficient energy, environment-friendly lighting and landscaping instead of adding more “unfunded mandates” that scare new business away and make existing businesses consider moving to another town.

If we want businesses to behave in a certain way, let’s help offset the cost through tax credits.
Charlestown should also combine its purchasing power and police powers to promote business practices that better serve the town.

Charlestown needs some form of “bad actor” ordinance to prevent us from issuing contracts, permits or purchase orders to businesses with terrible track records. We should also adopt a “responsible contractor” policy to give extra consideration to businesses with good track records who are also based locally or who hire local workers.

Bad actor policies such as these would have stopped Charlestown from issuing a permit to Copar’s Charlestown operation which Charlestown did during the height of the Copar quarry crisis.

Water for all

Charlestown water quality recently became an issue of note to the CCA-controlled Town Council only when facts about threats to Quonnie’s drinking water could no longer be suppressed by rich folks worried about property values.

Toxic waste still buried under Ninigret Park is but one of several largely
ignored toxic waste sites in Charlestown
But in fact, water quality is a concern for the whole town since we all rely on private wells except for a few exceptions.

Contamination from septic systems, leaking underground storage tanks for heating oil and gasoline, quarries (including abandoned ones), old toxic waste sites, agricultural chemicals and sea level rise could very well mean the clock is ticking on our reliance on private wells.

But does Charlestown have a plan to deal with this potentiality? If not, shouldn’t we?

It’s time to put the public interest above any fears about what lawsuits might come out of the town’s right to use its police power to protect public health and safety. It’s also time to stop sweeping threats to water quality threats under the rug for fear that it might affect property values.

Reform town government

Charlestown's four electoral precincts. CCA's stronghold
is Precinct 3 (yellow). Strong Democratic registrations
in Precinct 2 (green).
Previous CCA Party town administrations have made many people feel disenfranchised. We’ve operated as through the town is a mythical 18th century bucolic rural paradise or perhaps a retirement settlement for the wealthy. A much colder version of West Palm Beach. 

The truth is that Charlestown is many things that vary greatly from precinct to precinct.

Personally, I’d like to see Charlestown move toward single member districts, to address the feeling that not all parts of town get fair and equal treatment.

We have exactly four precincts of almost exactly equal population almost precisely covering the four corners of Charlestown. I suggest one Council member from each of those districts plus one Council member elected at-large by the whole town.

I think we need to look more systematically at our Code of Ordinances and clean out or change those ordinances that are no longer needed, no longer reflect current conditions, don’t work as intended or have proven to be unenforceable. 

I am also concerned about selective enforcement that is a natural byproduct of Charlestown’s “complaint-driven” system. If we can’t fairly and evenly enforce our ordinances, why have them?

Our approach to the Town Charter should be handled in similar fashion. I understand the reluctance to set up a Charter committee again, given how chaotic and controversial the last one, the 2012 Charter Revision Advisory Committee (CRAC), was. Before 2012, Charlestown usually appointed a new CRAC every election cycle.

But at least every five years, the town does need to undertake a systematic and comprehensive look at the Charter to make sure it serves the people of this town.

Finally, Charlestown needs to conform to state law and cease to be the only Rhode Island municipality where its Planning Commission is elected, not appointed. While an appointed planning board is hardly apolitical, having an elected Planning Commission makes planning explicitly political.

I’ll go into more detail on these subjects in future articles but I offer this outline as a starting point for our new Town Council.