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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

How will Charlestown use its federal bonanza?

Stankiewicz unveils vision of how Charlestown will use its COVID funding, if it ever does

By Will Collette

His secret power is he can makes things go very slooooooow
Normally, it takes a pry bar or a court order to get any substantive information from Charlestown’s Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz. 

His extraordinary efforts to block the release of any information not in the interests of his masters in the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) have earned him the nickname of Stonewall Stankiewicz.

Apparently, I’m not the only one being stonewalled by Stankiewicz. After writing THIS ARTICLE, I’ve heard from other Charlestown residents who have also have had open records responses containing page after page of blacked-out records or a huge bill, payable in advance, to get page after page of blacked out records.

Like me, they were looking to uncover evidence of town malfeasance in road projects, construction, land deals, town finances, the use of town resources for political ends, and more. Like me, they’ve been told to pay hundred-plus to find that the most information has either been withheld or blacked out.

This is typical of hundreds of open records requests
I've gotten from Stankiewicz. Very transparent, right!
Stankiewicz has made a science of searching the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) looking for ways to deny release of records on such topics. He’s even drawn a rebuke from the Assistant Attorney General in charge of open government who noted that even though the law may allow a town to withhold certain information, that doesn’t mean they should.

So you could knock me over with a feather last Friday when I read a Providence Journal article that reviewed how cities and towns across the state planned to use federal monies allocated to them under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA, not to be confused with APRA). This is part of Joe Biden’s COVID relief program and is aimed at helping state and local governments recover from the pandemic.

It’s an interesting article loaded with useful ideas about how the money can and is being used by other municipalities around the state.

Note that cities and towns were told last May how much money was coming. I published THIS ARTICLE with that information on May 11.

Here’s the Charlestown section from the article:


Total expected: $2.3 million

Total committed: $0

What's happening: "We’re playing it slow," said Town Administrator Mark S. Stankiewicz. 

The small town has an equally small staff, and those employees have limited bandwidth and aren't necessarily "attuned to all the ins and outs of federal regulations," Stankiewicz said. As a result, Charlestown will likely hire an outside consultant to figure out how to best use the money without running afoul of any guidelines. 

While other communities have invested in upgrading municipal water and sewer infrastructure, Charlestown doesn't even have those facilities in the first place, Stankiewicz pointed out. 

Input from community members will be solicited at some point, but Stankiewicz says he wants to first get a clearer understanding of what uses are allowed.

"It’s a pie that everyone wants a slice of," he said. "And the pie is limited."

Well now, I never realized that Mark Stankiewicz is making policy for the town. Or that he is hiring consultants he has not been authorized to hire. Prior townadministrators would have been hung, drawn and quartered by the CCA for doing that.

Charlestown's Town Charter was carefully crafted and amended to place all power in the Town Council, not the Town Manager. However, maybe Stankiewicz is testing unlimited new powers granted to him by the Council's CCA majority, led by Bonnie Van Slyke (Arnolda) to fight what we now know is an imaginary threat from AMTRAK.

For a guy who says very little and usually parses his words very carefully to avoid giving away any useful information, it seems that ProJo report Antonia Noori Farzan peeled Stankiewicz open like a can of cat food.

Let’s start with “We’re playing it slow.” Given that ARPA money is supposed to be used to stimulate the economy, “playing it slow” kinda misses the point.

Is “playing it slow” Charlestown’s policy? Most cities and towns around the state have been looking forward to this money since it was first announced in May and already have plans. A couple have already committed all or much of the money.

Bristol, for example, has committed nearly all of its money to infrastructure projects, many dealing with neighborhood flooding. West Warwick is using half a million as bonuses to reward first responders for their service during the pandemic. Portsmouth will use $1.5 million to launch a revolving capital fund for public service vehicles and equipment.

A couple of towns plan to do what Stankiewicz proposes, which is hire consultants to help them spend the money. Apparently a new cottage consulting industry has sprung up. Stankiewicz has been increasingly reliant on outside consultants rather than do the work himself or delegating it to staff. Maybe this next bit explains why.

Stankiewicz says his staff has "limited bandwidth" and
aren't "attuned" to federal regulations" Whose fault is that?
Then there’s Stankiewicz’s demeaning description of Town Hall staff who “have limited bandwidth and aren't necessarily attuned to all the ins and outs of federal regulations.” 

Is this Stankiewicz’s admission that since he was hired in February 2013, he has failed to build a competent staff who, in particular, don’t know how to handle federal funding?


For just about all the Town Hall staff, this is hardly their first rodeo in handling federal funds. Remember Superstorm Sandy? Winter storm Nemo? Every weather-related disaster declaration has been followed by federal funding and this ARPA funding is no different.

I do recognize that at least one Town Hall staff has a problem with rules and regulations, Town Planner Jane Weidman, minion of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner. She started off the SPA-Gate scandal in 2020 by filling an application for DEM funding to buy a piece of land worth around $70,000 for a price tag of $423,000.

The price tag was based on a very shaky assessment done for the Sachem Passage Association that Weidman knew was shaky. Why? Because Charlestown Tax Assessor Ken Swain gave her detailed reasons why the land was not worth $423,000 three days before she filed the application.

Filing that application would, in my opinion, violate this section of the RI General Laws:

§ 11-18-1 Giving false document to agent, employee, or public official. – (a) No person shall knowingly give to any agent, employee, servant in public or private employ, or public official any receipt, account, or other document in respect of which the principal, master, or employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official is interested, which contains any statement which is false or erroneous, or defective in any important particular, and which, to his or her knowledge, is intended to mislead the principal, master, employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official.

(b) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned, with or without hard labor, for a term not exceeding one year or be fined not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000).

Weidman, Platner and Stankiewicz did the same thing earlier this year to buy the Tucker Estates property at the behest of the CCA. They ignored the tax assessment of $333,600 and instead used three successive assessments (based on “hypothetical assumptions”) to finally get to the seller’s desired price of $900,000!

Then Platner wrote an defense of this blatant rip-off claiming “Buying Tucker Woods Was A Good Land Deal.”

Yeah, maybe Stankiewicz is right about town employees not knowing how to stay out of trouble with the law. The statute of limitations to prosecute on these deals has not run out.

That brings me to my final point on Stankiewicz’s 15 minutes of fame in the ProJo. I think the real reason he’s talking about stalling and hiring a consultant is that he’s looking to see if Charlestown can use the ARPA money to buy more properties on Ruth Platner’s Christmas list.