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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Charlestown budget vote: closing arguments

CCA says we need it to bolster town’s “legal defense fund”
By Will Collette

Action Alert: Urge Your PA Rep. to Vote NO on Abortion Restriction ...Now is the time for you to make sure you have marked your Charlestown budget ballots so you can mail them to Town Hall in time for the June 1 deadline. 

I hope you will vote NO to a bad budget for the second consecutive year.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA party), the political action committee that has controlled town government for the past ten years crafted this budget at their secret meetings in their hidden lair and sent it along to the Budget Commission and to the CCA-controlled Town Council for rubber-stamping.

This budget makes a $3 million surplus disappear without the promised opportunity for the community to tell the Town Council how IT thinks the surplus should be used. That promise was made by the CCA party after voters defeated last year’s budget – they even set aside $75,000 for consultants to come up with a credible process. But that promise was forgotten – explicitly so by CCA brainy guy Mike Chambers:
“I received the flyer yesterday. It says CCA broke a promise. Would you document that promise or send a video that shows the promise made? I just can't remember such a promise. I received the flyer yesterday. It says CCA broke a promise. Would you document that promise or send a video that shows the promise made? I just can't remember such a promise.” (NextDoor/Charlestown)
But Chambers’ memory or lack thereof is not the issue. The question is whether or not Charlestown voters will approve the new town budget for $16,812,318 and kiss the $3 million surplus goodbye.


Green Acres TV Review
Maybe the CCA's definition of "rural
character" is pseudo-farms and 

rich out-of-staters.
Their lead closing argument seems to be that Charlestown will be defenseless against assaults from “the other” – those nefarious forces constantly trying to destroy Charlestown’s rural character.

Since the CCA was first set up, it has been defined by what it is against, which is just about anything that Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner says is a threat to our “rural character.”

I filed an open records request for any document, rule, ordinance, memo, letter or whatever that actually defines what the Town of Charlestown means by the term “rural character.”

The town’s response on August 7, 2015 was to reference two sections in the town ordinances where the term is mentioned, but is not defined.

For example, the town’s Zoning Ordinance, section 218-2(B)(2) saying one of the ordinance’s purposes is Providing for a range of uses and intensities of use appropriate to the rural character of the Town and reflecting current and expected future needs.”

I guess it's like what US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his opinion on a 1964 obscenity case: he didn't know how to define pornography "but I know it when I see it."

As a practical matter, "rural character" in any given situation is whatever Planning Commissar Ruth Platner says it is. 

But let’s set aside the obvious need to actually define “rural character” and focus on the money the CCA party says it need to defend it.

The CCA party knows fear drives votes – they could have taught Donald Trump a thing or two – and they use it to the hilt. There’s always something (real or imagined) to scare voters.

Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner wants to take $125,000 from the $3 million surplus for this Legal Defense Fund because of a number of past boogeymen she describes.

AMTRAK

Acela-Kenyon-1106
This is the AMTRAK photo Platner used in her article
The first one Platner cites happened in Trump’s first year in office, Charlestown joined hundreds of other New England towns in opposing a plan by AMTRAK to build the infrastructure for high-speed rail that would go through some prime farm, forest and historic properties. 

The AMTRAK route was a bad idea, though the idea of improving rail infrastructure is a good one. Personally, I think running new high-speed track along interstate highway right-of-ways would work better.

But the fact is, this rail plan was not going to happen and the CCA party knew it. 

It had NO funding. Trump opposes AMTRAK just on general principle and he was not about to do the Northeast any favors. Neither was the Congress which was totally controlled by Republicans at that time. The project simply had no funding and died on the vine.

Charlestown came late to the fight against the project largely because then Town Council President Tom Gentz failed to read the advance materials the Federal Rail Administration sent to every town along the route. He also did not delegate it to any town staff.  Gentz angrily pronounced at a public meeting on the subject, “Who’s got time to read all this stuff?” Duh, that's your job, Tom.

We were not likely to have to hire any lawyers to fight this plan because even if by some miracle Trump allowed it to advance, the Connecticut resistance already had it covered.

INVENERGY AND CHARLESTOWN WATER

Progressive Charlestown: It's really most sincerely dead
Platner notes another hare-brained scheme that involved the Hail Mary pass by Invenergy, promoters of a giant fossil-fuel plant in Burrillville, to line up contracts with owners of large amounts of water to provide back-up cooling water if needed. 

They signed a contract to that effect with a staff member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

The plan to pump Charlestown water for use in Burrillville was pretty stupid on its face. It would have been terrible for Charlestown and prohibitively expensive for Invenergy. 

The company’s scheme was pretty clear: they were losing their fight to local resistance so they tried to win supporters elsewhere in the region by spreading the promise of easy money around. It backfired on them.

Charlestown joined the popular struggle and, in the process we discovered that many if not most of our neighbors in the Narragansett Indian Tribe already opposed this plan. For once, Charlestown residents were actually united in protest against a common (though unlikely) threat.

Regrettably, Charlestown decided to deploy the town’s “Special Counsel” for Indian Affairs, attorney Joe Larisa. Larisa has been condemned by Narragansett tribal leaders as “racist” and despite that, we pay him a $24,000 retainer plus additional money if he ever actually has to do any serious legal work (Charlestown Budget, page 17C). 

Larisa's play was to declare that the Narragansetts were powerless to do anything with their own land - especially not sell off water that belongs to all of us. At that stage in the fight, we were winning. Larisa's effort only served to insult the tribal members pointlessly. And for this, we pay this guy $24,000+ every year.

Larisa is relentless is attacking any proposal the Tribe makes to try to better itself such as the effort by the Tribe to acquire the old Camp Davis property off South County Trail. I am ashamed that my tax dollars are used in this budget and past budgets to pay this guy.

THE DOLLAR STORY

Then Ruth cites the long legal battle against the proposal by the Dollar Store to open up a store near the new senior citizen affordable housing project on Old Post Road. That one did cost Charlestown a lot of money despite Ruth’s claim that they left town without a major legal challenge.”  That’s not true and I have the legal documents to prove it.

There was no popular uprising against the proposal, just objections from Platner and a few others. Grasping at straws, the town turned down Dollar Store’s application by calling the Dollar Store a “department store” and thus a prohibited use in the Crossmills Village District. Anyone who has ever been in a Dollar Store would not mistake it for Macy’s.

So the case went to court and the lawyers served and volleyed motions and briefs until Dollar Store decided it didn’t need the store in Charlestown.

I don’t like Dollar Stores, but for different reasons than the CCA. For me, it’s their questionable business practices and terrible labor record. My reasons can be translated into a policy for Charlestown that would work better than a Legal Defense Fund.

BAD ACTOR CODE

I have long said Charlestown needs “Bad Actor” provisions in its ordinances and rules on issuing permits and contracts and buying major goods and services. 

We should not be doing business with criminals or civil malfeasors.

We have the right to deny permits, contracts and town business to those who commit business crime or tax fraud, destroy the environment, harm their workers, can’t produce proof they have the financial wherewithal to comply with their legal obligations or don't have a legitimate performance bond.

We just need to establish reasonable, uniform criteria for corporate bad character and apply it without prejudice.

Now let's look at some cases Platner left out of her narrative.

COPAR QUARRY

Copar Quarries gets a half million dollar ... - Progressive CharlestownPlatner DOESN’T mention the infamous Copar Quarry battle. The quarry, located on the Charlestown-Westerly line, was owned by a trash tycoon from Connecticut who had served federal time for racketeering. 

From a legal standpoint, this was mostly Westerly’s problem, but in March 2014 Copar decided to take over the Morrone sand pit on Route 91 in Charlestown.

On June 4, 2014, Charlestown issued business license to Copar for the Morrone operation even though Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz KNEW about Copar’s checkered past. He knew because, at that time, the Copar fight was in its full fury. Plus, I personally sent Stankiewicz my research on the company.

Not to mention Copar was operating without a business license for three months.

I still don’t understand why Stankiewicz allowed that business license to be issued. Maybe this is why Copar did not make Ruthie’s list of threats that justify a Legal Defense Fund.

Copar eventually went away on its own, victim of in-fighting among the band of bad guys who ran it into the ground, not due to any lawsuits by Flip Filippi or huffing and puffing by Tom Gentz and the Charlestown Town Council.

WHALEROCK

Progressive Charlestown: Charlestown chunksPlatner also doesn’t mention Larry LeBlanc’s controversial Whalerock industrial wind turbine project. 

The backstory is that LeBlanc bought the land on the Charlestown Moraine in the 1970s to deny Narragansett Electric the use of that land for infrastructure to support their proposed nuclear power plant in what is now Ninigret Park and the National Wildlife Refuge.

Charlestown was united in the anti-nuke fight and Larry was doing his part by taking key land off the board. He says he was promised by the town that they would buy the land back from him after the nuclear power plant was defeated.

That never happened, so Larry proposed various projects (some serious, some ridiculous) over the years to prod the town to keep the promise he says the town made to him.

The wind turbine project was the one that did the trick. Charlestown put most of its effort into trying a variety of legal ploys to block Whalerock, each leading to expensive court battles. 

Overall, LeBlanc kept winning in court and Charlestown kept losing. It came to the point where the only practical solution left was to give Larry what he really wanted: to buy his land as he said was his due. And so we did, for $2.1 million.

If Whalerock had been better handled, it never would have come to that conclusion. I see Whalerock as a good reason why we DON'T need a Legal Defense Fund - if we had one at the time, we would have wasted it all on futile litigation.

“Y-GATE”

Platner also doesn’t mention the sordid fight in 2012 when the CCA tried to pander to non-resident campaign donors in the Sonquipaug development to buy a derelict abandoned YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond.  The trigger was a proposal by Ted Veazey for a very nice, 10-unit eco-friendly development that would have included cleaning up the mess the YMCA left behind. 

The Y-Gate scam involved paying almost $1 million for a rural slum, ostensibly to give Charlestown residents access to Watchaug Pond – even though more than 90% of the pond’s shoreline is state, federal, town or non-profit owned. 

Except that Veazey’s proposal for those homes had already been shot down by the Town Council the year before. So there was no reason for Charlestown to spend almost a million dollars in public money to block some “threat” that didn’t exist for land we didn't need.

The Y-Gate scam failed, but continues to echo in town politics.

IN CONCLUSION

Every town will face challenges from time to time that call for resistance. There are time-tested ways to fight to win as well as ways to fight to lose. Going to court is, in my long experience in fighting LULUs (“locally undesirable land uses”), a last resort and often a waste of time and money. 

Community resistance beat the AMTRAK project and the Invenergy water scheme. Copar beat itself. The resolution to the Whalerock fight was giving Larry LeBlanc what he wanted. Dollar Store simply left.

I think the lessons to be learned from these cases are:

We need to stop being afraid of boogeymen and honestly assess each "threat" for what it is - without hysteria. 

We need our long-overdue Comprehensive Plan, one that looks to the future not some imagine past rural paradise. We need a real definition of “rural character.”

We need to know - and focus on - what we want, not just what we don't want.

We need to fight smarter for what we believe in.

We need to stop making decisions based on cronyism.

We need to build community based on trust, mutual interest and mutual aid.

We need town policies that prohibit permits, contracts and purchases to business entities with sordid records.

We need to vote NO to this bad budget.