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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Vox Populi: How is Charlestown doing?

The fine art of data torture

By Will Collette

“If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything” 

Nobel Laureate economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013)

Charlestown Town Hall just posted the long overdue community survey that was sent to 9,400 Charlestown addresses. The survey itself was very long and asked your opinion on just about every aspect of Charlestown life.

The survey was sent to 9400 addresses – basically everyone who owns property, not just voters or permanent residents. 2,270 surveys were returned, a very high percentage especially given the length and complexity of the survey.

A quarter of the responses came from absentee property owners (pg. 38). 55% of respondents are elderly (pg. 40); 96% are white (pg. 40); 50% are retired (pg. 39) and 51% have lived here 20 years or more (pg. 39).

It’s not unusual for such surveys to be so heavily skewed away from Charlestown’s true demographics which are younger, less white and more likely to have jobs. We aren’t an old age colony yet.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) fought hard to delay the survey and to load it up with their kind of language to try to make it a “push poll.” That's where your wording steers answers the way you want.

Even then, they didn’t trust that they’d get results they wanted. They decided to submit the town’s Comprehensive Plan without the survey results even though the Plan was already eight years late. This decision to submit the Plan without the survey results was chided by RI Statewide Planning.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Charlestown Planning Commissar and CCA leader Ruth Platner published a letter to the editor on November 1 that grabbed hold of one statistic in a Providence Journal article – that Charlestown approved 110 units of new housing between 2018-2020) - as proof that all criticisms of the CCA’s anti-growth and anti affordable housing policies were wrong.

Ah yes, we are one year away from Election Day in Charlestown and the forecast calls for dense fog coupled with blue smoke and mirrors. 

Platner’s writing gives life to Professor Coase’s quote cited at the beginning of this article that indeed, when it comes to data, you can make it say just about anything.

Take, for example, how the CCA’s only cited highlight from the survey comes from the survey’s top page. It says a vast majority of Charlestown residents like living here. Well of course they do. I like living here. The CCA likes living here. People who are not CCA like living here. Otherwise, they’d be looking to leave.

And we all love the beauty of our natural surroundings.

In addition, the survey shows huge support for several important Charlestown institutions such as top-ranked Charlestown Ambulance and Rescue (94%), Charlestown Fire District (93%), Cross’ Mills Library (92%), Ninigret Park (91%) and Charlestown Police (90%).

Where we really differ is how we got here and where we go from here.

The CCA would have you believe that they, and only they, are responsible for all that is good about Charlestown. However, history says otherwise.

Actually, if anyone deserves credit, I’d say it’s the Narragansett people, since it is their land that we took to make this town. They lived lightly on the land while we clear-cut the woods for plantations, the naval air field and all the infrastructure, homes and businesses we now have.

In 1976, 30+ years before the CCA existed (and to be fair, 25 years before Cathy and I moved here), Charlestown united to defeat a proposed nuclear power plant on the site of decommissioned Ninigret Naval Auxiliary Air Field.

In 1979, rather than a power plant, this huge swath of southern Charlestown instead became the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge and the town-owned Ninigret Park by order of the federal General Services Administration.

At around the same time, the Narragansett Indian Tribe entered into the 1978 Claims Settlement that ended decades of litigation and struggle over the Tribe’s ancestral lands, though that was just the beginning of tribal efforts to improve the lives of its people.

These events that happened almost 50 years ago set Charlestown on its present course. The CCA inherited that course and what came from it when it took political control of Charlestown in 2010.

How well has the CCA done with its total control of the town? 

Town Administrator Stonewall Stankiewicz, the CCA's
man in charge, has set town policies promoting secrecy,
unfairness and sometimes outright hostility to residents
who are not part of the CCA
The recently released survey, there are some troubling signs where “overall performance of Town government was rated as excellent or good by two-thirds of residents but fell short of the National benchmark.” 

That means that in surveys like this, local government usually gets higher ratings than those in this survey.

On page 19, the survey breaks down the numbers on government performance and this is where it gets both interesting as well as susceptible to spin. 

I look at the data and see that less than 20% - essentially CCA’s political base - give town government top marks.

Yes, this is “inside baseball” stuff followed only people who actually pay attention to local politics. 

Nonetheless, I see that around 40% of respondents say town government doesn’t treat everyone fairly, isn’t open and transparent, is not welcoming and doesn’t listen to the public (Figure 20).

Respondents differed on future directions, usually based on demographics such as age, income, whether they have families, and whether they work or are retired.

Demographics tell the story. On affordable housing, for example, if you are an elderly retiree happily ensconced in your home, you may think Charlestown has plenty of housing and doesn't need any more. However, if you are a working class, middle-income family looking to buy or rent, it's very different situation.

The survey summary (top pages) says half the town is OK with the rate of growth of population, commercial, retail, residential housing and jobs.

But drill deeper and you can see a different story especially on jobs and the economy. Of those who gave an opinion, 55% feel job growth is too slow. In general, one-third or more want Charlestown to have more affordable housing and more retail and dining businesses.

Further, the answers varied depending on where you looked within the survey. For example, good ratings for the availability of affordable housing in Charlestown drop to 35% in Table 83, pg. 101.

Basically, you can shop around the tables to find whatever it is you want to see.

So, continuing on, let’s see how tortured data can be played by reviewing CCA leader Ruth Platner’s November 1st letter to the editor.

Platner claims that a September ProJo article showing Charlestown’s growth in housing in 2018-2020 proves that critics are wrong to criticize the CCA for slow growth, burdensome regulation and spending too much on the purchase of open space.

This is how the CCA views affordable housing
Except, the limited data in the ProJo article support no such conclusion no matter how hard Platner tried to make it fit the points she wanted to make.

Platner notes that among Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, Charlestown was in the middle of the pack at #14 for the number of housing permits issued. But when you adjust for population size, we’re not so bad. 

Ruth’s source, that ProJo article, doesn’t say how many units were affordable, how many were actually built (not just permitted) and how many were tear-downs/re-builds, which happens a lot south of One.

She also ignores the core theme of the ProJo article which is how Rhode Island desperately needs more affordable housing. I believe she did that to gloss over how badly Charlestown is doing in meeting its legal mandate to create more affordable housing, especially rentals.

The number of added affordable housing units we need in Charlestown now is 137, according to the latest report from HousingWorksRI at Roger Williams University. That factors in the 170 additional residents we added over the past 10 years according to the 2020 US Census

For all you data fans out there, Charlestown’s rate of growth (2.2%) was the 29th lowest among RI’s 39 cities and towns.

For those of you still reading this article, thank you for bearing with me through this critical look at data that can affect Charlestown’s future. 

For the past several years, politics in Charlestown and the entire country have been dominated by debates over what it true and what is false, fake news versus the real deal. 

In 2022, these debates will grow and intensify.

To make your way through the morass, be skeptical of everything and everyone (including me)  – and demand to see the proof.