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Monday, August 20, 2012

Town Council tonight – hot topics

Muni court jurisdiction, light poles, Y-Gate lessons learned, another anti-affordable housing push?
By Will Collette

It’s always a crap shoot when you try to predict what will happen at our Town Council meetings. While you can usually count on a certain number of procedural flubs, flashes of rancor and bad decisions from this Council, you never know how heated the exchanges will be or how long the meeting will drag on.

This month, the Council agenda is less overstuffed than usual. It’s even possible they might finish in less than three hours, though I doubt it. Although some hot button issues, like the lighting ordinance, Y-Gate and affordable housing are on the agenda, they may not generate as much heat as they have in the past.

Here are my predictions for tonight’s meeting:

Municipal Court jurisdiction

GUILTY! Of spitting on the street
This will be one of the first major items under the actual agenda the Council will follow (not the one that was published). The Council will hold a public hearing on Ordinance #352, which assigns our recently created municipal court with the jurisdiction to judge on summonses issued by Charlestown Police to violators of the Charlestown Code of Ordinances.

Under this Ordinance, the local court will be able to decide cases where perps are alleged to have violated Charlestown’s Code on public drinking, use of waterways and town docks, placement of street numbers on property, misconduct in town parks and beaches and an array of noise and nuisance violations and disruption of “peace and order.”

For many of these violations, the court will be allowed to levy fines (usually no more than $500) and jail time (less than 30 days). For some offenses, such as failing to have the right kind of street numbers on your property, the fine is only $20.

Linda Felaco and I wrote several articles about some of the offenses that could now land you in front of our Municipal Court Judge, Margaret Steele, such as throwing snowballs at a tree, standing still on Creek Bridge, spitting on the street, swimming in a quarry, sleeping at night in a public place (though daytime sleeping seems to be kosher), etc.

Some of Charlestown’s finest citizens use the Charlestown Code as a tool in their fights with their neighbors. I'm sure this is, for them, a "civil" way to settle disputes. Now the good news is that these cases can now be heard at Town Hall, instead of the District Court in Wakefield. Saves gas.

This ordinance will pass.

Comprehensive Plan

Trust me
Town Planner Ashley Hahn has sent the Council a memo with her report that Statewide Planning, the body that must review and approve Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan, recommends that Charlestown work on a 5-year update of its existing plan rather than try to write a new one. Statewide Planning wants Charlestown to also begin work on a new plan, which is due in 2016.

Planning Commissar Ruth Platner won’t like this. She told her Planning colleagues that she thought it would be easy to simply write a new Comprehensive Plan. Probably easy for her, since she would just write it herself and ignore the advice or input of anyone she disagrees with.

There is no decision attached to this agenda item, simply acknowledgement of Ashley’s memo. Whether the Council expresses an opinion or preference remains to be seen. Council Boss Tom Gentz expressed discomfort with Platner’s blasé attitude about simply writing a new plan between now and the spring when our current plan expires.

But Gentz has a long history of doing what Ruth tells him to do, so I predict that Gentz will not allow much discussion on this item and will simply leave it to the Planning Commission, i.e., to Ruth.

Tennis Court Fees

The Parks and Recreation Commission is asking for Council approval for a fee schedule for booking tennis courts at Ninigret Park. The price is $6 an hour for singles court play and $8 per 90 minutes for doubles. Nonresidents would pay a $2 surcharge.

I predict there will be a lot of hostile serve-and-volley on this topic.

Councilor Lisa DiBello will object long, loud and strong because she generally opposes anything coming from Parks and Recreation (“because she cares”) due to her past history - i.e. she was fired as director and wants her successor, Jay Primiano out.

Councilors Gentz and Dan Slattery will probably object to the $2 surcharge on nonresidents since they, as CCA representatives, must honor the CCA principle that nonresidents should not only not get charged extra, but should probably get a discount because they are sooooo beloved and cherished.

I think the odds are against this proposal winning the Council majority’s approval.

Public and Council Comments

Whose turn will it be to trash Progressive Charlestown and to call me a bad person for “naming names” and being uncivil?

Since this has become a standard feature, I predict someone will take their best shot. These attacks are always a nice boost for Progressive Charlestown readership, so please keep them coming.

Persons Wishing to be Heard

Friend and colleague Frank Glista has put in for 15 minutes to speak before the Council. Frank is always interesting, so I predict this will be worth your attention.

Affordable Housing

Council President Gentz has been very candid in expressing his disappointment that he was not able to get the General Assembly to repeal the state affordable housing law, or to at least grant Charlestown an exemption. He is very upset that the legislature doesn’t understand what an important guy he is and how Charlestown should not be made to obey the same laws as every other city and town.

So he has put the Affordable Housing Advisory Review Committee on the agenda. The idea is to have some committee that will come up with a rationale for why Charlestown doesn’t need affordable housing or doesn’t need to comply with state law.

Gentz, at Ruth Platner’s urging, spent weeks last fall pushing this crackpot agenda, only to have it fall apart on him. The lollipop Gentz received as a consolation for having the town reject his scheme, the proposed Gentz-Platner Affordable Housing Deconstruction Act, was that the town would ask the General Assembly for a one-year moratorium on the state affordable housing law and a state study commission to study Gentz’s proposition that rural towns like Charlestown don’t need to obey the law.

Of course, none of that happened. Gentz was greatly upset at Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, who chairs the existing state legislature commission on affordable housing, because Kennedy didn’t answer Gentz’s e-mails.

So now we will hear Gentz’s plan for gearing up again to wage war on this issue.


In a similar vein, Gentz wants to set up some process to study what went wrong with his Y-Gate scheme that would have used the Open Space and Conservation Easement process to bilk Charlestown taxpayers of $475,000 to buy a worthless easement on the abandoned YMCA camp. Gentz wants to find out not only what went wrong (OMG, where do we begin?) but to also try to figure out how to not make the same mistakes.

That second part is easy – a  good start toward making sure Y-Gate doesn’t happen again is for Gentz to pull out of his reelection campaign.

But, I predict, Gentz will continue to declare that Y-Gate was a great thing and no one on his side of this issue did anything wrong. It was that evil blog, those obstructionist Democrats, that Mageau-minion Dr. Jack Donoghue and a host of others who spoiled a perfectly good scam.

I predict this discussion will be surreal. That is, if it takes place at all. Its placement on the agenda puts it well past the time when Gentz can function with any semblance of leadership.

Town Administrator Search

This is yet another item Gentz has placed on the agenda. He wants to clarify the duties of the Town Administrator Ad Hoc Search Committee. I kind of thought that was already pretty clear – i.e., search for a new town administrator to replace the one the CCA drove out of town. But Gentz must have something special in mind. According to his memo, he wants to make sure the Committee takes its time and does the job right. On that, I agree with him. He notes that Pat Anderson is doing fine as Acting TA, so there’s no big rush. Again, I agree with him.

Having said I agree with him means that somebody is likely to stand up and argue for hiring a new Town Administrator forthwith, simply because they oppose whatever I favor. Sounds like a job for Mike Chambers.  

Lighting Ordinance

Charlestown Wine & Spirits - too tall for Ruth
After taking a tremendous beating for totally screwing up the process for enacting a lighting ordinance aimed at protecting Charlestown’s dark night sky, the Planning Commission found itself with a compromise ordinance that really doesn’t do much to actually protect the dark sky. But it’s an ordinance, and Ruth can call that a win.

The one thing she was able to salvage from all the many things she was forced to slash from the ordinance was a limit on the height of commercial lighting fixtures. That was set at 15 feet.

But even that one token victory was challenged by town business owners who asked why 15 feet, as opposed to 18 feet? Or 24? Ruth didn’t have an answer, other than to say this was copied from Hopkinton’s ordinance and that there are very smart people in Hopkinton.

The Council passed the ordinance with Ruthie’s 15 feet in it, but directed her and her plucky Planners to study the issue and come back with modified language on height.

Town Planner Ashley Hahn took a look at lighting at the sites in town most often held out as examples of good, dark sky-friendly lighting and found that all of them were taller than 15 feet. In some instances, the pole is 15 feet, but it’s mounted on a concrete stand that puts it in the 18-20 foot range.

But Ruth is determined to hold on to her 15-foot limit, even without any practical or scientific basis for it. In fact, at the December council meeting, the representative of Musco Sports Lighting who presented the ill-fated plan for sports lighting in Ninigret was at pains to explain that paradoxically, for reasons of geometry, dark-sky lighting in fact has to be mounted on taller poles than customary so that more of the light is directed toward the intended area rather than spread along the ground.

Ruth’s solution is to recommend Ordinance #353, which will amend the new lighting ordinance. The new ordinance says that the limit is 15 feet unless the business pays for an expert acceptable to the town who can give a good reason why the lighting should be higher. This is classic Platner – create a disincentive, in this instance the cost of the expert, to coerce businesses to knuckle under to her will.

Prediction: This is the first reading of this new Platner ordinance, not the public hearing and Council vote. Plus, this is the last substantive item on the agenda. The Council will simply vote to pay for an ad in the Westerly Sun for a public hearing on this thing at the September Council meeting.

On this open, transparent, civil and transparent note, this meeting will end, and we’ll all know that this was three hours of our lives we’ll never get back.