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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Do political parties matter?

Depends on who you ask, where you ask and how you ask it

By Will Collette

In the recent debates over the importance of political party labels, there’s one point that most people take to be a given – party labels matter a whole lot less the more local you get.

That’s certainly the case in Charlestown, where Democrats favor tax cuts[1], less burdensome regulation[2] and promotion of small business, contrary to the usual “tax and spend” anti-business stereotypes associated with the national Democratic Party.

But there’s a difference between the common agreement that national party labels matter less at the local level and making the blanket judgment that labels don’t matter at all.

To say that labels don’t matter at the local level is just plain ridiculous, and to find the evidence, you need to look no further than the website of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance. Though the CCA claims to be nonpartisan – indeed, it claims to be a veritable melting pot – that’s just not true.

The CCA is, for all practical purposes, Charlestown’s ruling political party. It’s no surprise that their chief spokesperson, Mike Chambers, repeatedly declares that he used to be a Democrat[3], but has since dropped his affiliation. Of course he has, because now he is the CCA’s voice! You can’t be a member of two parties at once.

The CCA has its slate of candidates running under its party label and notes with pride that all of its candidates have pledged their loyalty to the CCA’s “platform[4].”

Democrats don’t do that, though not for lack of desire or effort. It’s just that getting Democrats to all go in the same direction and agree to any long list of principles is a daunting task. That’s one of the consequences of the Democratic “Big Tent” that has both a conservative like Jim Mageau and a lifelong lefty like me registered as Democrats, though not at the same table. We may be registered in the same party, but we’re not even in the same time zone on many issues.

But to get back to the CCA, there is no practical difference between the CCA and a political party, except that the CCA is more determined to operate as a closed, secretive group dedicated to strict orthodoxy.

You can’t “join” the CCA, though you can follow it, or if you’re a candidate under their banner, you can follow their orders. If you don’t you may suffer the fate of the CCA’s 2008 slate.

The CCA has not held a public meeting since 2008. They say on their own website that they only disclose information about themselves that they are required by law to disclose[5]

How does the CCA make decisions? When do they meet? Where do they meet? What’s in their bylaws? How do they select officers? If anyone knows the answer to any of these questions, please let me know.

They occasionally reveal changes in their leadership line-up, with a different member of the Steering Committee taking over the titular position of President. Ever since Dan Slattery left the CCA Presidency to assume his Town Council seat, CCA Presidents became more and more like figureheads rather than actual leaders.

Indeed it almost seems like one sure way to get your picture on the side of a milk carton is to be named the new CCA President.

Florida resident Kallie Jurgens tried for a time to be a visible leader, but her out-of-state residency became an embarrassment for the CCA. Then Bernice Krantz took over as President and was never heard publicly again. Now Virginia Wooten has taken over, now that Dr. Milton and Bernice Krantz have moved out of state. We haven’t heard a peep from Ms. Wooten either.

Instead, we get Mike Chambers’ invective[6] in his role of CCA spokesperson, along with the usual anonymous comments, written mostly by a small handful of people. 

The CCA is registered as a political action committee, so they must file campaign finance reports.
However, they fudge on those reports when they decide it is strategic for them to do so. 

They were nailed for violating campaign disclosure law in 2010 when they hid the amount and sources of money they raised and the amounts they spent to get their slate, which included Council President Tom Gentz and Council vice-president Dan Slattery, elected.

The CCA platform – to which all CCA candidates must swear obedience – declares that the CCA is in favor of open space and against a lot of other stuff. They are against the Narragansetts’ efforts to get a casino, they are against Jim Mageau, they are against Democrats, they are against incivility, they are against affordable housing and they are against lack of openness, transparency and professionalism – except for themselves, of course.

Soon, their out-of-state donors will send in their checks so the CCA can begin saturating the print media with ads, clog your e-mail with e-bleats, and your snail mail box with campaign literature.

The CCA has assumed the political niche held at the national level by the Republican Party, especially the Tea Party, as the guardians of the interests of wealthy landowners, especially nonresident landowners. 

For them, it is an article of faith that if you make out-of-state landowners pay higher taxes to cover the costs of the 12-month infrastructure maintained for their 3-month visits, including emergency response for their hurricane-prone shore-front mansions, or their lack of paying state taxes, or the disproportionate effects of last year’s local property tax reassessment, which gave them an effective 7% tax cut over everyone else, that’s somehow “class war” and “discrimination.” At least, that’s what Mike Chambers says.

And the CCA platform, including key components clearly crafted by Ruth Platner, repeatedly expresses concern for placating out-of-state property owners. Platner notes that they pay the majority of the town’s taxes and don’t get to send their children to Chariho schools. 

Well, from my observation, it could be those shoreline vacationers wouldn’t be sending kids to Chariho even if they lived here permanently since they seem to have an average age of 78[7].

There’s one “must-see” part of the CCA program: Ruth Platner’s mathematical formula that shows that, from the CCA’s point of view, families with children are parasites. Check it out for yourself if you think I’m making this up or exaggerating.

But there's really not much value in looking at the CCA's "platform." For one thing, it's just words. It is far more instructive and less fictional to actually look at their record after four years of total control of town government. We don't need to look at their platform to know what they stand for. They've already shown us.

The CCA took office in 2008 pledging to run an open, transparent, civil and professional town government. That didn’t work out, so in 2010, they ran another slate pledging to run an open, transparent, civil and professional town government. That hasn't worked out either.

Here they come again in 2012 with the same promises, the same rhetoric and the same 55-gallon drum full of negativism, unsubstantiated insults, lies, anonymous character assassination, dirty tricks and distortion.

I really hope they plan to run on their record too and not just sling mud while making sanctimonious claims that they are “ethical,” “civil” and “professional.” But they prefer to talk about style and tone, rather than the substance of what they have done. Then they’d have to defend the indefensible.

[1] Specifically, a Homestead Tax Credit that would give ALL full-time residents of Charlestown a $1000 tax credit on their property tax. This was rejected by the CCA Council majority as “discriminatory” to nonresidents and the owners of $1 million-plus properties.

[2] Stressing the importance of including the town’s small businesses and the Economic Improvement Commission in crafting town legislation that could have a major impact on local businesses such as the lighting ordinance, and the recent Ordinance 349 that concentrated power in the Planning Commission.

[3] Technically, a DINO.

[4] This insistence on a loyalty pledge goes back to the CCA 2009-2010 civil war. The five CCA-endorsed Council members who ran for, and won, Town Council seats in 2008 committed apostasy in the CCA’s eyes by dissing Ruth Platner and supporting Larry LeBlanc’s Whalerock wind farm proposal. These five were “excommunicated” by the CCA, which then ran a new CCA slate (Tom Gentz, Dan Slattery and Cliff Vanover) against the old CCA slate (Gregg Avedisian, Marge Frank, Candi Dunn and Forrester Safford – Richard Hosp declared he was sick of the mess and declined to run for reelection). Two of the new and two of the old CCA candidates were elected in 2010.

When Councilor Lisa DiBello was elected in 2010, she aligned with the “new” CCA Councilors (Slattery and Gentz) against the two “old” CCA Councilors (Avedisian and Frank) because Avedisian and Frank voted with the other Council members to fire DiBello in May 2010. DiBello is currently suing Avedisian and Frank, plus other present and former town officials and, of course, the Town. She has offered to settle her wrongful discharge suit for $1.5 million.

[5] So how do you define “open and transparent”?

[6] Very “civil.”

[7] Yeah, yeah, I know. Very uncivil. Just kidding – their average age is only 73.3.