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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Town Council meeting – three hours of my life I’ll never get back

Three hours of tedium punctuated by a pointless debate over affordable housing and a sprinkling of the surreal
By Will Collette

It’s a wrap on the Town Council’s deliberations for August. The only really good news is that they did complete their lighter-than-usual agenda in the allotted three hours and will not need a second meeting.

Easily, the most disturbing part of this meeting was a long and rancorous debate among the Councilors over whether Charlestown should try to meet its affordable housing obligations under state law or continue trying to push the CCA’s position that state law should not apply to Charlestown.

But there were also long and drawn out discussions over the jurisdiction of our municipal court and some sharp elbows thrown over a proposal to institute a fee system for people who want to reserve time on the town’s tennis courts.

There were gibes and shots tossed around over clean-up of the Pawcatuck River, whether Councilors Tom Gentz and Lisa DiBello abused their positions as Town Councilors, the process for replacing former Town Administrator Bill DiLibero after he was purged by the CCA, and whether the town needs a curfew on young people.

In my opinion, most of this meeting was a complete waste of time – an exercise in futility. Plus, there was a lot of posturing aimed not at what’s good for Charlestown, but what’s good for the Council members who are running for re-election.

If you can stand watching and listening to three hours of this drivel, you will learn a lot about the characters of those Council members. It may help you begin to make an intelligent decision about who you will want in those Council chairs after November 6.

It’s hard to believe this meeting could be so awful – and it could have been a lot worse, since Councilor Lisa DiBello was absent.

Glad we got this cleared up

The Council did approve Ordinance #352 which specifies certain parts of the Charlestown Code of Ordinances that will be under our municipal court’s jurisdiction on a 4-0 vote. But first, the Council heard and then reviewed a long list of questions raised by Evelyn Smith about how this ordinance would work. This was, as the cliché goes, a long row to hoe, but I suppose necessary. But since this ordinance was going to pass anyway, I’m not sure, in hindsight, that it made any difference.

Doing for $3000 what couldn’t be done for $200,000

The Council heard Woods-Pawcatuck Watershed Association director Chris Fox report on how their river clean-up of fallen trees went. WPWA is a great organization of which I am proud to be a member. Fox reported that WPWA had received a $3,000 grant and had pretty much done the length of the river in their usual manner of clearing the waterway with minimal disturbance to the river ecology.

He contrasted that with the proposal that the State Conservation Committee had made to Charlestown and other towns in the watershed to contribute time, staff, equipment and money to aid in their project to pretty much do the same thing. The Conservation Committee had received a $200,000 grant and wanted the towns to come up with the 25% match required by the grant. Charlestown and other towns refused, but Fox told the Council that the WPWA had already done the job with their $3000 grant. He took some digs at the State Conservation Committee’s approach, but under the circumstances, I guess that was warranted. Anyway, problem solved, thanks to the WPWA.

Tennis, anyone? Ka-ching!

The debate over tennis court reservation fees was, as I predicted, a much hotter issue than you’d expect, but not because Lisa DiBello always opposes anything Parks and Recreation wants to do. She wasn’t at the meeting.

Instead, it struck me that there was a lot of personal stuff going on in the background of this issue – a dispute between some regular users of the courts that somehow morphed into this proposal. I would rather not get into those personalities, mainly because there is a subtext that I am not privy to. Instead, I suggest you watch this drawn-out debate when it goes up on Clerkbase later in the week.

I really wish town residents would stop using the Town Council to settle their personal grievances. And shame on the Council for letting them do that.

The proposal for the new fees was ultimately approved.

Glass Houses and Stone-throwing

Frank Glista takes Gentz and DiBello to the woodshed
Frank Glista stepped up the podium during “Persons Wishing to Be Heard” and made a strong statement about Council members who abuse their authority. Specifically, he was referring to Councilors Gentz and DiBello. I asked Frank for a copy of his remarks so we can publish them in their entirety tomorrow.

In his remarks, Frank defends Progressive Charlestown’s right to publish facts and opinions even though Councilors Gentz and DiBello don’t like them.

I am generally uncomfortable with other people sticking up for my actions, since I prefer to defend myself in my own way. However, I appreciate Frank’s larger points that Charlestown citizens, regardless of their political persuasion have the right to speak and write; that before condemning someone else for incivility or “naming names,” clean up your own act first, and that Council members should have enough respect for their office not to violate their own rules and abuse their office.

Anyway, you should read Frank’s remarks tomorrow in their entirety.

The on-going war over affordable housing

Gentz loses it
In my meeting preview, I noted Boss Tom Gentz’s bitter disappointment that he failed to convince the General Assembly in its last session to change state law to suit Charlestown, or, at minimum, give Charlestown an exemption from compliance.

In a bold exercise of dictatorial prerogative, Gentz demanded his colleagues go along with his plan to re-active a town taskforce to once again compile a list of changes to state law that should be made to accommodate Charlestown. 

Even though Charlestown found itself alone among rural towns in taking on this jihad, Gentz is still convinced that we need to go back to the legislature, and perhaps this time, he will sit on the floor, drum his feet and hold his breath until he turns blue.

His first motion failed to pass on a 2 to 2 tie vote. Under the Town Charter, the Council must have three votes to take any Council action.

Even though his motion was defeated and there was no motion on the floor, Gentz then proceeded to badger the two Council members who voted against his motion – Gregg Avedisian and Marge Frank – to either change their votes or come up with an alternative.

Gregg responded that the alternative was to let the Affordable Housing Commission do its job. Marge agreed.

This went on for a good twenty minutes – a debate, indeed a hectoring session by the Council President – without a motion on the floor. But since Gentz was the one who was completely out of order – actually, it’s more accurate to say he was out of control – and he’s also chairing the meeting, there was no one to rule him out of order.

So my wife Cathy stepped up to the podium and pointed out to Gentz that he was badgering Avedisian and Frank to change their votes and that was totally out of line.

You will really need to see and hear the Clerkbase recording when it goes live to fully take in how badly Gentz lost it during this debate.

Gentz was also playing fast and loose with the facts. Gentz kept insisting that Charlestown was making great progress in meeting the state affordable housing mandate that 10% of our housing stock is affordable.

He had Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris go to her office to get the data comparing Charlestown to other rural Rhode Island towns. Ashley did and here’s what she presented:

Charlestown is currently credited with have 1.97% of its housing stock classified as affordable.

Charlestown is better than Scituate at 0.95%, West Greenwich at 1.46% and Richmond at 1.89%.

However, it is terrible compared to Block Island which has met the state mandate with housing that is 10.09% affordable. Then there’s Hopkinton at 6.59%, Tiverton at 5.08%, East Greenwich at 4.32%, Jamestown at 4.07%, and Exeter, Foster and Glocester coming in at just over 2%.

According to these numbers, Charlestown is better than three other rural towns, but worse than eight.

Based on these data, Gentz continued to declare that Charlestown is doing great when these numbers clearly show it is not. It seemed as if he completely ignored the statistics he sent Ashley to fetch from her office.

Gentz is convinced there is a groundswell of dissension with state law, based on no tangible evidence. Indeed, Gentz was asked by Councilor Avedisian if any other town showed up to support Charlestown’s bid for a one-year moratorium on the state law. Gentz admitted no other town came forward. Few towns supported Charlestown’s resolution.

But Gentz asked Ashley to say whether it’s true that there are people in state government who want to change the state affordable housing law. Ashley diplomatically answered by saying that “nobody says the law is perfect.”

Some mandate. Some groundswell.

Finally, since there seemed no other way to calm Gentz down (and I think Marge Frank was starting to get worried about him popping his cork), Marge changed her position and voted in favor of Gentz’s modified motion to re-animate the town affordable housing taskforce with a primary focus on what the town should do to meet its duty and a teensy-weensy emphasis on changes to state law.\

I predict that Gentz will monkey with this process to reverse those priorities and get back on his anti-state affordable housing hobby horse.

Again, watch and listen for yourself and make your own determination.

The B-List

Some other developments:

Comprehensive Plan: Even Ruth Platner now admits that it is impractical for Charlestown to write a brand-new Comprehensive Plan before our current plan expires in April 2013. So she agreed that Charlestown will update its last five-year update and then go to work on writing a new plan to conform with new state law by the deadline of 2016. I'll believe it when I see it.

Town Administrator Search: A surprising consensus emerged that it would be a really bad idea, given Charlestown’s awful experience with the CCA’s “Kill Bill” Campaign that drove out Town Administrator Bill DiLibero for this Council to try to find his replacement. Further, the Councilors acknowledged that the recently selected Ad Hoc Search Committee will cease to exist when the current Council term expires.

The question the Council debated was what to tell this Ad Hoc Committee to do between now and November when their terms expire. The general consensus was to have the current Ad Hoc Committee get the ball rolling by setting up the advertising and screening process. They will have a budget of up to $10,000.

That appropriation of $10,000, by the way, is probably an Open Meetings Act violation, since the expenditure was not advertised in the agenda. On June 26, just a month and a half ago, the judge in Dr. Jack Donoghue's Y-Gate lawsuit ruled that Charlestown violated the Open Meetings Act by appropriating $475,000 for Y-Gate without posting notice of that proposed expenditure on the agenda. I believe the Council just did it again.

The advertisement, if posted before the term expires, will clearly state that the position will not be filled until after the new Council is sworn in after the November election. As Councilor Avedisian pointed out, the “Kill Bill” Campaign might make some qualified applicants think twice about applying if it means serving under the current Council (or facing discharge if there’s a dramatically changed new Council).

Y-Gate: Gentz put an item on the agenda to discuss the lessons learned about open space acquisition from the Y-Gate Scandal in which he played a leading role. The discussion consisted of Gentz asking the substitute Town Solicitor (not our regular Solicitor Peter Ruggiero) for his advice on how such acquisitions could be handled.

This fill-in lawyer admitted he knows very little about the past controversy and gave the Council a generic run-down of how you should have the staff and the appropriate commissions carefully look over every open space proposal. Pointless and useless. Since it was clear this lawyer had nothing specifically on point, Gentz let this subject drop.

Teenage curfew. Gregg Avedisian said he had been asked to raise the idea of a curfew because there is one small neighborhood in town where a couple of families are having problems with a few unruly local punks. Our acting police chief explained that he was well aware of the situation, and was on top of it. He said his officers had talked to the delinquents and their parents and had gotten social services and the schools involved. He said the incidents had declined and that matter seemed to be well in hand.

He further opined that curfews are problematic since they penalize all young people because of the actions of a few. This discussion covered a lot of the pros and cons of curfews (mostly, there were cons) and no action was taken other than to direct Acting Chief Paliotta to report back to the Council next month.

The takeaway. Thus endeth another session of our Honorable Town Council. One overall conclusion I draw from this meeting is that Tom Gentz’s “Uncle Fluffy” persona is long gone, dead and probably buried somewhere in his backyard. Gentz was out of control and in full Boss Gentz mode through the last two-thirds of this meeting. He was particularly frenzied during the affordable housing debate.

I think he will need to reflect on, and then explain to the voters, exactly what it is that he hates about affordable housing. He also needs to explain his comportment as presiding officer of the Council.