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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Charlestown's SPA-Gate cover-up begins

Town blacks out town officials’ correspondence

By Will Collette

It goes on like this for EIGHT pages. Source: 
Charlestown document 4-M-2020-8-9 Lee to Hilton
As it does at least once a year, the controlling Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) is working on a shady land deal. This time, it’s with one of its client groups, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA). It could lead to the town buying a small piece of property for seven times its assessed value.

Welcome to SPA-Gate.

We have a number of documents the town was legally required to disclose under the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). These documents give us more than enough detail to know the deal is a really bad one for the town.

I’ll run the details down for you shortly. (Spoiler: the land is worth $61,900 but we might pay $426,000).

But let me tell you what the town is covering up: by claiming an exemption under the APRA, Charlestown is blacking out correspondence to and from elected officials on the deal.

Charlestown’s black-outs mean you can’t see the by-play between the key figures. You can’t see how the deal evolved, what promises were made, whether there is any quid pro quo or corrupt practices or intent. Some perfectly innocent documents end up looking sinister after the content is wiped out with a magic marker.

Since August 16, the town has sent me 91 documents relating to SPA-Gate. Of those, 76 have undergone some level of redaction (black-out). Nearly all have been cut up under the exemption for elected officials.

The example to the ☝upper-left is an e-mail from Council President Virginia Lee to Parks & Recreation Director Vicky Hilton with what are supposed to be photos of the land being offered for sale to the town. It is one of the more ridiculous cases – I doubt those photos give away any secrets.

You can only guess what our Town Planner had to
say to Planning  Commissar Ruth Platner
after the DEM grant was approved
The open records law does allow correspondence of elected officials – e.g. Town Council or Planning Commission members – to be withheld.

Here’s the APRA exemption for elected official at 38-2-2: (M) Correspondence of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities.”

I spoke to attorney Kathy Sadeck, chief of the Open Government Unit at RI Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office. She said that just because a document CAN be withheld under this exemption doesn’t mean it MUST be withheld or even SHOULD be withheld.

When the information is in the public interest or may involve questionable or illegal practices, the Attorney General may not allow it to stay hidden behind the exemption.

Choices to disclose or not are usually political and reflect either a commitment to transparency or to obfuscation.

These documents would not be protected from disclosure to a grand jury or in a court of law.

According to Council Vice-President Deb Carney 
these blacked out e-mails are questions about the 
black-out policy she raised with our Town Clerk
and Town Administrator. She did not ask for nor
agree to the black-outs.
Council member Deb Carney has raised this issue with the Town Council and suggested the Town stop censoring every piece of correspondence involving a Council or Planning Commission member.

CCA Council member Bonnie Van Slyke who represents Arnolda asked Deb:

“I wonder what the problem is here and why the mechanism set up, you know, to appeal to the Town Administrator if there’s an issue or to the Attorney General, I don’t understand. Deb, what is the problem? What is broken here?”

OK, Bonnie, you asked.

Every detail of Charlestown policy and practice has been controlled by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance through its secretive Steering Committee for the past ten years. That includes disclosure of information. There have been running battles over the public’s right to know for the past decade.

Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz does what the CCA tells him to do so appealing to him is pointless except to fulfill the steps set out in the APRA before making the failure to disclosure a bigger, legal issue.

Despite the 76 censored records, we have enough in those records the town had no choice but to disclose to understand why the CCA is so eager to cover-up SPA-Gate e-mails. Based on those records, here’s what we know.

The Sachem Passage Association (SPA) is a non-profit residents association of about 100 households clustered on the Charlestown Moraine. They operated under the nom de guerre “Ill Wind” to try to block a proposed two-turbine wind energy project called Whalerock.

They failed and turned to the town for a bail-out. So in 2013, Charlestown bought the Whalerock property for $2.1 million. From that point on, SPA and the CCA were joined at the hip.

SPA owns Lot 5-95-5, 4.27 acres (which includes the access road) on Foster Cove. Each of the SPA households has a deeded right of access to the lot, though the land has been largely unused. Thus, the SPA leaders decided to sell it.

We know an approach was made to the town on April 24 by Ron Areglado, CCA Party candidate for Town Moderator, acting as SPA’s Secretary (READ HERE). Areglado led the unsuccessful anti-Whalerock fight that ended up costing Charlestown $2.1 million.

The SPA presented a January 21 appraisal that valued the land at $426,000 based on, according to the appraiser, the “extraordinary assumption” that a two bedroom house could be built there even though the appraiser admits this is virtually impossible. READ THE APPRAISAL HERE.

Here is the relevant passage where the appraisal says his number is based on the "Extraordinary Assumption" that the lot is buildable.

We have a June 1 memo (READ HERE or below) from Town Tax Assessor Ken Swain to Town Planner Jane Weidman that details why he believes the town assessment of $61,900 is fair and reasonable given all the legal and physical restraints make it impossible to build a house on that property.

On June 4, despite Swain’s memo, Jane Weidman submitted an open space grant application (READ HERE) to RIDEM based on the phony price of $426,000.

So at some point between June 1 and June 4, the town decided to disregard Town Tax Assessor Ken Swain's misgivings about the value of the land and to instead submit an application for state funding, using an appraisal known to be false.

Who made that decision?

I don’t know if there were any exchanges in the blacked-out e-mails that discussed the propriety of asking for a grant based on the SPA appraisal when it was clear the $426,000 price was wrong.

On July 30, DEM awarded Charlestown $213,000 to pay for half of the inflated appraisal price for the SPA land.

I can’t tell from any of the blacked-out e-mails whether there was any thought given to telling DEM about the appraisal problem.

From this point on, just about all the documents released by the town are heavily redacted like the example to the left.

SPA-Gate is not a done deal – several shady CCA deals have been killed in the past when the details emerged.

Plus, there are some fail-safes built in such as the requirement that an INDEPENDENT appraisal will be done, hopefully without the “extraordinary assumptions” (a.k.a. bullshit) that underlay the SPA appraisal.

Proponents of the SPA-Gate deal – the SPA officers, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and the CCA members of the Town Council – have been laying low since the DEM grant was approved. The town is still waiting for SPA to respond to its request for documents. 

And there’s the black out of public records relating to SPA-Gate which is becoming an issue in itself - although, to be honest, I think the land deal between the CCA majority and its cronies is the real issue.

We are, of course, looking at an election on November 3 where the CCA Party's 10-year control of Charlestown is being challenged.

My sources say activity will pick up again after November 3, unless the CCA Party loses its Council majority or Ruth Platner is voted off the Planning Commission (hopefully both),