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Monday, July 25, 2022

What you need to know about Charlestown politics, Part 1

What is the Charlestown Citizens Alliance?

By Will Collette

Tom Ferrio and I launched Progressive Charlestown in December 2010, a month where we drew 106 readers. 

After 12 years and 5.64 million pageviews (an average of 35,000 a month), I sometimes forget that our local readers might not closely follow Charlestown’s political adventures or know the history. This article is the first of a series aimed at giving readers more context in this important election year.

Let’s start with the town's long-time rulers, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) who seek to continue their reign by winning the November election.

In March 2008, the CCA officially formed as a political action committee (PAC) with Dan Slattery as President. Their purpose was Jim Mageau’s ouster from the Town Council (more on Jim, below), painting themselves as the epitome of civility, even though they started out by running a smear campaign against then Council President John Craig that actually drove him out of town.

The CCA achieved the goal of ousting Mageau with a powerful showing in the 2008 election. Mageau ended up as the lowest vote-getter with only 102 votes (4.3%).

However, the CCA became dissatisfied with its own elected Council members because they failed to follow orders from the CCA’s secret and mysterious Steering Committee. The Steering Committee list has not been updated in several years and includes at least one member who is dead. You cannot join the CCA nor are its meetings posted or public even though that’s where every important town decision is made.

So in 2010, the CCA purged their own Council members and replaced them with two of their most doctrinaire leaders, Tom Gentz and Dan Slattery.

With Ruth Platner commanding the Planning Commission (the only elected planning commission in the state, arguably illegal in composition), their conquest was complete. The CCA has controlled all the levers of power in Charlestown for the past 12 years.

Thank you, Jim, for launching the CCA

James Mageau (Jim) 👉has been a fixture in Charlestown politics since the world was young. Irascible, obnoxious, and litigious. Often called a bully, Jim has probably pissed off more people in Charlestown that I could ever dream of doing. At least, I think so.

Mageau made his reputation through filing tons of lawsuits, complaints and rumors about conspiracies and corruption by everyone else in town but himself. He also liked to get in people’s faces to scream and curse them out. Mageau, for no particular reason, cursed out my wife Cathy when they first met.

Years ago, Jim told me he was a “Scoop Jackson” Democrat, i.e. a DINO who is conservative on just about all issues.

By an odd sequence of events, he not only got himself elected in 2006 to the Town Council but through a string of resignations (including John Craig, noted above) landed in the Council President’s Chair. That was simply too much for most Charlestown residents (myself included). Local Democrats couldn’t stand him and resigned en masse rather than serve on the Democratic Town Committee with him.

Mageau lost his 2010 bid for re-election with the lowest vote total of any candidate and CCA-endorsed candidates won a majority on the Council.

Mageau tried for a comeback a couple of times after his defeat, but clearly had lost his voter appeal. After many years of absence from the ballot, Mageau filed a Declaration of Candidacy for Town Council this year and has qualified for this year’s General Election as an “independent.” 

Though Mageau was once nominally a Democrat, he became Donald Trump’s most vocal supporter in Charlestown. However, even though he's a Trumplican, local Republicans didn’t want him either.

Looking back at history

Though Jim Mageau was the Charlestown Citizens Alliance's causus belli, the CCA’s true roots are in the old founding families of Charlestown. They ran large plantations on land stolen from the Narragansett Indian Tribe using slave labor, mostly African but also some Narragansett who were captured after the Great Swamp Massacre in 1675.

Over time, especially after World War II, rich transplants seeking cheap land for big houses on the ocean joined Charlestown’s “high society.”

In nearby Shelter Harbor, a group of wealthy men formed the RI Shoreline Coalition (RISC) in 2003 to protect their fake fire district and guarantee the ability of non-residents to vote in fire district elections. They actually wanted voting rights to be based on property ownership, not residence.

For most of its life, the Coalition was headquartered in Charlestown. The Shoreline Coalition morphed into the Statewide Coalition and then into “Rhode Island Taxpayers.” But in 2016, it died, largely due to the 2014 death of its founder Harry Staley.

However, you can find lots of DNA traces showing the kinship between the CCA and the Shoreline Coalition.

Besides DNA, the CCA also carries on its parent’s values: favoritism toward rich absentee landowners, hatred of the Narragansett and a general desire to block families and people of color from moving in are among the most prominent values the CCA learned from RISC.

Yes, the CCA will do anything to preserve Charlestown’s “rural character” though that term has never been defined. In practice, rural character is code for the CCA's effort to wall off Charlestown against “outsiders” most especially “People from Providence.”

Money, money, money

Photo by Steve Ahlquist
Charlestown is no different than the rest of America where money generally determines election results. Out-going state Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi 👉beat much respected Rep. Donna Walsh (D) in 2014 because he is a wealthy man. His wealth scared off opponents for eight years.

Despite a complete lack of achievements, bizarre policy positions and questionable honesty, Flip was unopposed until this year and remained beloved by the CCA until he decided to quit.

This year, a credible candidate, Democrat Tina Spears, rose to challenge him so Flip pulled a Josh Hawley and flipped out of the race.

The CCA historically has always out-raised all competitors, holding on to power by using its paid propaganda to win over voters who normally don’t pay much attention to local politics.

Over the years, most of the CCA’s funding has come either from out of state or from neighborhoods that have become CCA territory.

Case in point: the Sachem Passage Association (SPA). Current CCA Town Council member Susan Cooper had claimed she was a “trustee” for the Sachem Passage Association on her filings with the RI Ethics Commission but has dropped that claim this year.

Other CCA donor bases include Quonnie and Arnolda.

In recent years, the CCA has used open space purchases to expand its political donor base. Buying land at the behest of a neighborhood filled with potential donors has paid off for the CCA, starting with the 2011 “Y-Gate scandal,” the first CCA land scam after they took control of the town.

The CCA locked in the devoted support of many Sachem Passage Association residents by spending $2.1 million in taxpayer money to block the Whalerock wind turbine proposal by buying the land out from under it.

The CCA rarely does fund-raising except in the last half of each election year. That’s when the money comes pouring in. I expect to see the first influx of big campaign bucks to show on the campaign finance report due to be filed on August 1.

Susan Cooper, a retired lawyer, is the only CCA Councilor seeking re-election. The rest of the CCA slate are primarily active or retired businesspeople with little experience in government but lots of experience making money.

What does the CCA really stand for?

You can read the CCA’s platform even though it’s largely a work of fiction due to glaring omissions but it’s a good place to start.

My quick take is the CCA stands for controling the land, protecting the wealthy, fighting the Narragansett Indian Tribe, and turning Charlestown into a sparsely populated gated community for people like themselves.

You should also read the town’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan that was largely written by CCA leader and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner 👉.

In it, you will see that the CCA opposes affordable housing, public transportation, Narragansett sovereign rights, business development except for tourism and services, and most green energy development while wanting everyone to ride a bike, plant shrubbery and support Platner’s goal of buying every acre she can to be set aside as open space.

The CCA also has enacted numerous ordinances that attempt to micro-manage every business and residence in town. We have ordinances governing trees and shrubbery, light, the color of switch plates on electrical outlets, signs, mulch, etc. 

Most ordinances are “complaint-driven” meaning nothing happens without a complaint which often feeds neighbor vs. neighbor feuds. Many town ordinances are unenforceable or enforced selectively, often ignoring some of the most obnoxious offenses.

Couple of examples: loud motorcycles and large illegal fireworks. Both are illegal and a public health and safety hazard, yet where is the enforcement?

Above all, the CCA stands for “rural character” as if all Charlestown residents have pick-ups with rifle racks, fly rebel flags and count on Arrowhead Dental to save the last few teeth in their heads.

What you won’t find in their own self-description are these key parts of the CCA philosophy:

Turn on the volume to hear Larisa talk about tribal sovereignty
Institutional racism

The CCA supports a perpetual war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe paying a $25,000 retainer to attorney Joe Larisa to monitor the Tribe and block any action the Tribe might take to better itself. It is the CCA’s position that the Tribe may do nothing on their own land without the town’s approval.

The CCA is also committed to “rural character” which, in practice, means no new housing that might attract “People from Providence,” working class families with children or any establishment that doesn’t meet the CCA’s undefined idea of “rural character,” although I think they might be using the antebellum South as their role model.

Reducing the town population

The CCA has an allergy to any housing that might increase the population.

To that end, the CCA seeks to buy up all the private land it can, regardless of the price. If you take the pattern the CCA has set over the past 10 years and extend it into the future, Charlestown north of one will consist primarily of government-owned open space and landowners with large tracts of land. South of One will be dominated by large and expensive waterfront homes occupied by wealthy retirees or owned by wealthy summer people.

Their latest ploy, their proposed “conservation development” ordinance, aims to give the Planning Commission more power to block new housing. How? By creating conditions that are so onerous and difficult that no one will seek to apply for a permit.

The CCA would be comfortable with a return to the 1700s version of “rural character” with large farms worked by compliant labor and large manor houses for the landed gentry.

Closed government, shady deals, rampant secrecy and rigged rules.

Charlestown has made it a struggle to gain access to public records. Our Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz seemed more devoted to finding loopholes in the law to deny access to information under the Access to Public Records Act, drawing a rebuke from the Attorney’s General’s Office.

The CCA-Three, their Council majority, have bent and twisted the rules of procedure and common courtesy to the point where getting an item on the agenda is a struggle unless you are a CCA member. The three are: Bonnita Van Slyke, Cody Clarkin, and Susan Cooper. Only Cooper is running for re-election. Clarkin doesn’t even reside in Charlestown anymore, making him ineligible to serve.👇

Last July the CCA-3 voted down a resolution that affirmed the right of all Council members to be able to place items on the Council agenda, a key part of their responsibilities as Council members.

Here's what they voted down: 

The CCA-3 also ramrodded approval for filing a $400,000 open space grant application with the state without revealing where the land is, what it comprised, the asking price and who owned it. A normal piece of business for an out-of-control CCA.

Part of the CCA creed is to follow the dictates of  Trump mentor Roy Cohn to “Never admit, never apologize, always attack.” Even when caught in a lie, such as Ruth Platner’s recent Charlestown Choo-Choo Hoax, they will profess their good intentions and innocence. Or say nothing at all.

The Prime Directive

Ever since the CCA’s 2010 internal purge  of CCA-endorsed Council members who were not following orders, the CCA has made it clear that anyone running for office under their auspices MUST obey all the CCA decrees. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s their published platform, or the values expressed in their actions or spoken at secret Steering Committee meetings. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s unconstitutional or illegal or simply doesn’t make sense. 

Conform or die as the 2008-10 CCA Council majority learned. The 2010 purge occurred when several CCA Councilors supported  construction of the Whalerock wind farm. 

To them, it had merit and besides, CCA leader Tom Gentz had made a big presentation to the Council in support of wind energy, citing a CCA-conducted poll showing overwhelming public support for wind power. That poll was purged from the CCA website, but not before I reproduced the results HERE). Gentz was a big backer of a test turbine called “the Met Tower” in Ninigret Park, the precursor of a large municipal turbine in the Park that never happened.

Here's Dan Slattery delivering anonymous anti-wind power
leaflets in Sachem Passage
What these hapless CCA Councilors didn’t know was that Tom Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery were canvassing the Sachem Passage neighborhood AGAINST the wind project. 

As my colleague Robert Yarnall documented, this effort by two CCA top leaders to subvert the CCA’s public support for wind power was done largely to win the support – financial and electoral - from the Sachem Passage neighborhood for the CCA.

It was like a page out of 1984 as the CCA did a 180 degree turn from loving wind power to absolutely hating it. Now, our current wind power ordinance makes it impossible for any Charlestown resident to install even the smallest residential wind energy device. Pure Doublespeak!

Those Councilors the CCA elected in 2008 were effectively excommunicated. This sent a message to all future CCA candidates: Obey or we will kill you.

The CCA also purged each town Board and Commission of people they deemed unfriendly to the CCA’s spoken and unspoken goals. They systematically placed their own loyalists onto these commissions, whether they were qualified or not, often passing over far more qualified volunteers whose only fault was a lack of professed homage to the CCA.

The CCA purged Charlestown’s Town Administrator Bill DiLibero over an astounding fake issue over who actually controls Ninigret Park. DiLibero and his Parks and Recreation director Jay Primiano (who was also purged) favored more active recreation in the Park, while the CCA won the undying support of the wealthy Arnolda neighborhood by fighting against anything other than passive (and quiet) use of the park.

One of them actually argued that children playing in the park kill birds. How? Citing an imaginary study, when children make noise, migratory birds fly away never to return, preferring to die at sea rather than tolerate the kids. I tried to find this so-called science and failed. If you have better luck, let me know.

The one exception to the CCA's aversion to active recreation was the construction of Faith’s Folly, an asphalt path in the Park for bikes and walking that no one uses.

CCA founding member Faith Labossiere really wanted this pathway and told the Council it would only cost $7,000 and would be very nice. Except the final cost was $266,927, a 4,000% overrun and used tons of asphalt, a material Planning Commission Ruth Platner has virtually banned for any other use.

But the land deals, the favoritism, the “pay-to-play” have been the CCA’s primary accomplishments since 2010. Personally, I believe the CCA may be just one more shady land deal away from a grand jury.