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Thursday, October 1, 2020

SPA-Gate cover-up begins

Town blacks out elected officials’ correspondence on shady land deal

By Will Collette

This is the first of EIGHT pages of blacked-out photos
As it does at least once a year, the Charlestown-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. (Spoiler: the land is worth $61,900 but we might pay $426,000).

Welcome to SPA-Gate.

We have 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. 

We have other documents that are so heavily black-out (redacted) that they are useless.

These are documents that Charlestown, tightly controlled by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, chooses to hide under an exemption in the APRA that allows the town to cover up correspondence to and from elected officials. 

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 examples of what has been covered up.

But more seriously, the e-mail 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. In some instances, perfectly innocent documents end up looking sinister after the content is blacked out.

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 censored under this exemption for elected officials (APRA, 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 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 doesn’t mean it MUST be withheld or even SHOULD be withheld.

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

Choices to disclose or hide are usually political and reflect either a commitment to transparency or to secrecy.

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

Deb Carney never asked for these black-outs

Council member Deb Carney raised this issue with the Town Council when she learned her own e-mails had been censored without her knowledge or consent. Example to the left.

She 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.

Buying the SPA land is unnecessary - it can't
be developed and is bordered by two pieces
of town land the the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.
Plus, we apparently don't get the access road.

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 but 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 including its access road on Foster Cove. It's the land outlined in red on the map to the right. The access road does not appear to be included in this deal, raising the question of what the town would do with the land if the deal goes through.

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 official 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 or below). 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 most relevant passage:

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 what happened between June 1 and June 4 to convince our Town Planner to submit a request for state funding based on SPA's shaky appraisal? Nothing shows up in the records then or later to shed light on this decision. All e-mails involving town elected officials are heavily redacted.

On July 30, DEM awarded Charlestown $213,000 to pay for half of the bogus price listed in SPA's appraisal.

SPA-Gate is not a done deal – several shady CCA deals have been killed by public protests in the past when the details emerged. Plus, there are some fail-safes built in such as DEM's requirement that an independent appraisal be done, hopefully without the “extraordinary assumptions” (a.k.a. bullshit) that underlay the SPA appraisal. We do not have the state funding in hand. Yet.

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 hand over more documents. Meanwhile, there’s the black out of public records relating to SPA-Gate.

We are, of course, looking at an election on November 3. My sources say activity will pick up again after that depending on who wins in the Council and Planning Commission,