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Sunday, November 6, 2022

I agree with Van Slyke on one thing: The future really is on the ballot

Time to give the CCA the boot

By Will Collette

As a political writer, the end of every election cycle poses a challenge: what to write as the “closing argument.” This time around, departing CCA Town Council member Bonnita Van Slyke has provided me with an answer by writing a Sun letter to the editor that says, “the future is on the ballot.” On that one point, I agree with her.

Van Slyke’s letter supposedly refutes Cathy O’Reilly Collette’s Sun letter that endorsed Deb Carney for re-election (disclosure: Cathy and I have been married for 51 years and she chairs the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee).

This is Van Slyke’s last term since she is not only not seeking re-election, she’s also blowing town if she can find some oligarch willing to pay her $2.4 million for her estate on the water.

Van Slyke begins by charging Cathy with lying: she presents as facts a number of things that are not true.” Then Van Slyke presents her version – actually the CCA’s or Ruth Platner’s official version – of reality.

Let’s see how that checks out:

VAN SLYKE: (1) The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) was formed as a political PAC, during a time of great political turmoil in Charlestown, to identify and address significant public policy issues that affect the quality of life in Charlestown. For over a decade, independent officials endorsed by CCA have addressed important policy issues, including hiring and supporting our excellent Town Administrator, protecting our natural environment, and working for and maintaining a low tax rate.

The full truth is a bit different. Yes, the CCA was formed as a political action committee – they were required to do so by the state Board of Elections since their sole purpose was to oust then Town Council President Jim Mageau. If not for the BOE, the CCA would have operated unregistered like the illegal PAC they formed this year as their unregulated stepchild. DETAILS HERE.

Again, Van Slyke uses the CCA’s magic word for the 2022 election, the wild lie that the CCA’s stable of candidates are “independent” when, throughout their history, the CCA has imposed harsh punishments on any town official who does not toe the CCA line.

That’s why they love Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz who told me to my face that “I work for the CCA.” He reasons that since he works at the pleasure of the Town Council, which is controlled by the CCA, ergo he works for the CCA. I would like to think that his first allegiance should be to the people of Charlestown, but I guess that’s na├»ve.

Stankiewicz has never committed to Charlestown, still living in Stoughton MA for which he receives a large travel stipend. He has been a sloppy manager when it comes to his greatest duty: managing Charlestown’s finances, and played a huge role in Charlestown’s $3 million dollar “oopsie.” He has also spent much of his time combing the state open records law for loopholes to prevent residents from seeing documents that would shed light on shady CCA deals.

We’ll get to the “low tax rate” and go a bit deeper into the $3 million oopsie below.

Moving on, Van Slyke says:

(2) Since 2017, the tax rate has declined every year, from $10.21 in 2016 to the current rate of $8.17 per $1,000 of valuation, the third lowest in Rhode Island. Because the town is able to utilize our natural resources to prevent contamination of our drinking water, expensive solutions that taxpayers would need to pay for have been avoided. The town also adopted a written fund balance policy, one of the only towns in Rhode Island to do so, and has healthy savings to meet emergencies.

The CCA always glosses over the fact that Charlestown property taxes rise every year without fail due to CCA policies. They neglect to mention that taxes are based on two factors: the tax rate multiplied by the property’s tax assessment.

They also neglect to mention that you get virtually no services for your tax dollars and that you must pay a la carte for your water, trash disposal, wastewater treatment and recycling, etc.

They neglect to acknowledge that the reason the CCA has been able to collect more taxes without raising the tax rate is that there has been a run on Charlestown waterfront property by rich out-of-state buyers who know properties here are cheaper than the Hamptons.

They pay higher than market prices for shoreline properties (one reason why Van Slyke is selling her place) and that drives up tax assessments. It also drives up property prices generally across town, which is nice if you’re selling – as so many CCA leaders have over the past few years - makes Charlestown all the more unaffordable for working families.

That “written fund balance policy” touted by Van Slyke is a cruel joke. The “policy” requires Charlestown to keep more money in reserve than is reasonably required to meet emergencies and guarantees higher taxes just to keep that bloated fund packed with cash. DETAILS HERE.

Next, Van Slyke (or her ghost writer Ruth Platner) takes offense at the charge that the CCA proposes “shady deals.”

(3) The “shady deals” are acquisition of forested open space that provides shade and cools our air. The Town Council has adopted a 20-year guide plan (our Comprehensive Plan) that will foster a town with rural character that develops responsibly.

Lots to unpack in such a short paragraph. First, about the Comprehensive Plan, it was written by Ruth Platner and submitted a decade after the state deadline. The Plan is deeply flawed. Its only serious priority is acquiring more open space.

It commits Charlestown to only encouraging services and tourism to grow but ensures the workers needed for those services can’t live here. The Plan rejects public transportation and affordable housing, and by doing so, we maintain “rural character,” the CCA’s thinly veiled code for excluding people of color or families with children.

The Plan commits Charlestown to shrinking the population by essentially buying up all undeveloped land, even though the Plan shows Charlestown is already +50% protected open space.

But the CCA doesn’t trust landowners and wants to control ALL the land in Charlestown. Van Slyke herself claimed at a Town Council meeting that unless all remaining buildable land is locked up, developers will “build 4000-6000 units of housing.” That's a bizarre CCA fever dream based on no evidence.

So, says the CCA, the town must buy up all remaining lands, regardless of the cost. If the CCA emerges from the Tuesday election with a Council majority, they will almost certainly return to trying to purchase the “Richard property,” a 100-acre parcel that is ALREADY open space (the owners have been getting an open space tax break for over a decade).

This is a classic “shady deal” as well as being the most recent.

We first heard about this property when Van Slyke and her CCA colleagues pushed through a Ruth Platner motion to apply for DEM funding for part of the cost EVEN THOUGH they said they could not disclose the owner’s name, the property location or the asking price. Over the objection of the CRU Councilors (Deb Carney and Grace Klinger), Platner wrote and submitted the DEM proposal asking for maximum funding.  

When DEM announced they were awarding the grant, we learned the owner’s name and location, but not the asking price. We know the property is assessed at $312,800 but if we use all of the DEM funding, the town could end up paying $800,000 or more, if the owners want more and can back it up with an appraisal.

This deal was stopped by an amazing occurrence: one of the CCA Councilors, ex-Eagle Scout Cody Clarkin, recused himself because his mother is an abutter, so the CCA lost its 3-2 edge and could not move the project forward.

Clarkin is not running for re-election since he has already moved to Westerly and only keeps his seat by claiming he is living with his mother.

If the CCA holds its 3-2 majority on Tuesday, they'll be back with more shady deals.

Van Slyke’s Point #4 challenges Cathy’s charge that the CCA is hostile to small business. Van Slyke says they’re not by citing some purely token efforts. If you live in Charlestown, drive around sometime. Count the empty and abandoned businesses, especially along the Boulevard of Broken Dreams also known as Route One. Charlestown is famous for hounding small businesses to death.

Van Slyke’s Point #5 is short:

(5) There are members of boards and commissions who are not supporters of CCA, and there are members who are supporters of CCA. All contribute greatly to the town.

This misses the real point. The CCA mounts active purges against any board or commission member who does not toe the CCA line. They decimated the Zoning Board of Review, Parks and Recreation Commission, Economic Opportunity Commission, and others of members they considered to be CCA opponents. They replaced them with loyalists who often had no qualifications for the position other than their fealty to the CCA.

Van Slykes last enumerated point:

(6) The CCA has brought citizens together. Among the many examples are two: Citizens joined together to force the Federal Railroad Administration to remove the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass from its Tier I Record of Decision (still an option under consideration in Tier II) and to fight Invenergy’s plan to truck a large amount of water from our watershed to northern Rhode Island to cool a power plant.

Both issues did indeed mobilize people from across Charlestown’s political spectrum and even bridged – for a moment – the racial divide between the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the rest of town.

But in both instances, the CCA blew major opportunities for progress. The fight to block the proposed Amtrak railbed went very well, even though the odds of this project going forward were slim. DETAILS HERE

Nonetheless, it was a good win, so good that Ruth Platner and the CCA tried to concoct a second round by claiming that somehow the plan was back with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

I call it the Great Charlestown Choo-Choo Hoax because it was a bald-faced lie aimed at giving the CCA a campaign issue – they love to run on fear and the Amtrak hoax was just the ticket. You can see in Van Slyke’s Platner-ghosted words that the CCA is still trying to sell the Choo-Choo hoax.

The Invenergy water fight was another victory that brought people together. In a nutshell, a fossil-fuel project proposal for Burrillville was on its last legs before collapsing and, for some reason, they reached out to a Narragansett Tribal official and made a deal to buy Charlestown water in case the plant had an emergency. Emergency back up water was one of the hundreds of boxes Invenergy had to tick as part of their losing effort to get the project approved.

Narragansett Tribal members themselves sounded the alarm and started picketing the Longhouse and along Route 2. Then the rest of the town joined in to oppose the deal. Even though the Invenergy plan was just about dead due to local opposition up in Burrillville with statewide support, it was right for Charlestown to fight this element of Invenergy’s plan.

Even though it was clear the water scam was not going to happen, at the last rally against the plan, Charlestown residents, Tribal and not sitting side by side, made the final showing to seal the win.

But then the blown opportunity: the united campaign against Invenergy provided Charlestown with an opening to begin to end the state of war between the Tribe and townspeople since 1675. But who should take the microphone but our town Indian fighter, attorney Joe Larisa. Our taxes provide Larisa with $25,000+ per year to fight the Tribe.

In this instance, Larisa decided to give the audience a lecture focused on his belief that the Tribe has no sovereign rights and couldn’t make the water deal even if they wanted to – and at this stage, it was clear the Tribe wasn’t going to do the deal, thanks to resistance from its own members. To get the full flavor of Larisa’s disgusting racist attitude, watch the video HERE.

Larisa’s gratuitous insult to the Tribe squandered all goodwill built up in the joint struggle and then some.

It was the CCA Council majority, in this case led by Susan Cooper, the only CCA Councilor seeking re-election, who prevented Larisa from being fired.

That’s it, folks. Now the decision is up to you. If you haven’t voted already, be sure you do on Tuesday.