Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TOWN COUNCIL: Big night for the banal

Town Council postmortem
New CPD Chief Jeffrey Allen
By Will Collette

Maybe we’re all just exhausted – or more likely sick and tired – but the September 10 Town Council meeting felt a lot like a “Going Out of Business Sale,” even though it started upbeat. 

After all, how can honoring a new Eagle Scout and swearing in a new, well-credentialed police chief not be upbeat?

But once the Council shifted to the worn-out, washed-out and frankly banal matters that populated the rest of the agenda, it was all downhill from there.

Councilors Deputy Dan Slattery and Lisa DiBello emerged from their recent relative silence to deal with two pet issues – federal rights to Ninigret Park and goings-on at town beaches. 

After four years of drama, the Council finally gave its tentative stamp of approval to a Personnel Manual for town staff. And Planning Commissar Ruth Platner fought and won a Pyrrhic victory on the last unresolved dark-sky ordinance issue.

Even though the Council finished up all its business almost an hour ahead of schedule, it felt like they had gone into triple overtime. Maybe it’s just me, but the small audience that stuck it out also seemed like their hearts weren’t in it.

But enough whining. Let me tell you what happened.


"I always get my MOU!"
As I reported in my preview, Councilor Deputy Dan Slattery’s posse rode perhaps for the last time. The cause in this instance was the “need” for Charlestown to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding” with our federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The “Battle of Ninigret Park” may have come to a final end with a 5-0 Council vote to approve a pointless agreement that says, in essence, that whenever Charlestown plans to do something new on the 172 acres of Ninigret that are still under some federal authority, it would be nice if the town had a little talk with Charlie. 

The MOU expires in one year, has no enforceability and can be cancelled upon two weeks’ notice by either party. Read it for yourself by clicking here and then ask yourself if it was worth all the trouble.

It was a totally empty gesture ending one of Deputy Dan’s most painful fantasy crises. It cost Town Administrator Bill DiLibero his job and pit Charlestown citizens against each other in ways that were painful to behold. Well, Deputy Dan, you got your MOU.

Manual Meanderings

Councilor Marge Frank said it best when she told her colleagues that the Council has been dithering with a rewrite of the old personnel manual for four years and it was time to stop and pass the damned thing.

DiBello's stall tactics didn't work
The manual is a guidebook for town staff, but is actually third in line behind state law and the collective bargaining agreements that cover nearly all town staff except the Administrator and part-timers. The need to rewrite it became very clear, and the process accelerated (so to speak), after Lisa DiBello was fired in May 2010 from her position as Parks and Recreation director.

Many of the provisions in the old personnel manual were added piecemeal, often to deal with a Lisa problem, such as one provision forbidding town staff from wiretapping each other.

DiBello tried to hold up passage of this latest version of the manual by questioning the hiring and firing chain of command. She apparently wanted all such decisions to be solely the Town Council’s. She asked repeated questions of Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, as she does at most town council meetings on just about every subject, hoping that somehow he would give her the answer she wanted.

But no dice. Ruggiero told her that the Town Charter does delegate personnel authority for hourly staff to their department directors, who are only required to coordinate with the Town Administrator on most personnel decisions. Ruggiero noted that making the Council the hiring and firing body was completely impractical.

Not getting the answer she wanted, DiBello tried to stall the vote, but Marge insisted that enough was enough after four years. Surprisingly, Councilor Slattery allied with Marge and against DiBello, his usual ally. In the end, the vote was 4 to 1, with DiBello in dissent, to approve the personnel manual.

The Rise of Sam Ferretti

Perhaps chastened by my preview of this item, Councilor DiBello started the Council’s surreal discussion of what constituted proper signage for Blue Shutters Town Beach with the disclaimer that the only reason she brought up the item was because she was asked to do so by an anonymous “taxpayer.” 

For a person who claims she neverreads Progressive Charlestown, she sure seemed like she realized that this issue was going to be political trouble for her.

Quick history: Blue Shutters Beach was bought from the heirs of Sam Ferretti thirty years ago for $1.4 million. An offer was made to affix Sam Ferretti’s name to beach to, I guess, honor the willingness of his heirs to knock $200,000 off their asking price. I wasn’t there so I can’t judge why the town “fathers” decided to do that.

Anyway, over the years, most people continued to call the beach “Blue Shutters” as they did for generations. I don’t recall anyone ever calling it Blue Shutters/Sam Ferretti Beach, but apparently the absence of Ferretti's name on the new Blue Shutters beach pavilion was an annoyance to DiBello’s anonymous taxpayer.

What I saw was a very awkward “debate.” I think DiBello wanted to bail on this matter as quickly as possible. Nobody on the Council seemed to have any enthusiasm for spending money to change the sign. 

DiBello offered everyone – especially herself – an out. She said that there may have been an old “Sam Ferretti Beach” sign she sort of remembered having been used way back when during her time as Parks and Recreation director. Maybe that old sign can be found. She suggested that maybe Alan Arsenault, town DPW Director, has it somewhere.

That’s presuming the sign actually exists (and Lisa didn’t simply make it up), the raccoons haven’t eaten it, or it hasn’t moldered into dust. Or that Arsenault has any motivation to search for it. Perhaps the worst case scenario is if we actually find that old sign…

I think this issue is going to disappear as fast as Dan Slattery's "phantom properties" and RHOTAP.

Let there be NO light

His Master's Voice - closing act in lighting ordinance drama
The final chapter for this Town Council and the town’s six-year journey to a lighting ordinance to protect the town’s dark sky was written when the Council approved an amendment to the largely symbolic ordinance on a 4-yes-to-1 abstention vote.

The ordinance amendment deals with the one provision in the lighting ordinance that survived the public shredding the Planning Commission’s earlier drafts received. That was a provision that limits the height of new commercial outdoor lighting to 15 feet, including any stand or pylon plus the light pole.

All of the other specific provisions in the earlier drafts were withdrawn when the public as well as town businesses protested the Planning Commission’s overreach when Planning chose to deal with dark-sky protection as a regulatory problem rather than a community problem[1].

Charlestown Wine & Spirits - dark-sky friendly but taller than 15 feet
The 15-foot rule gnawed at town businesses because Planning could provide no scientific or rational reason for it, other than to say that Hopkinton uses that standard and apparently people are smarter in Hopkinton than they are in Charlestown[2]. Our own town planner surveyed town businesses that are already considered to have models of good, dark-sky friendly lighting and found that all of them are taller than 15 feet, but less than 20.

So why not just make it 20 feet? Well, Platner had already conceded so much that she dug in on wanting to keep at least this one thing. The “compromise”? Town businesses must comply with the 15-foot limit unless they hire a certified lighting engineer acceptable to the town who can determine whether that business really needs lights that are taller than 15 feet, but less than 20.

Beth Richardson stepped to the microphone and noted that once again, the onus of compliance was being put on town businesses.

Councilor Avedisian said, logically, why couldn’t the ordinance limit simply be pegged at 20 feet, skipping the part about hiring a vetted, certified lighting engineer. Councilor Slattery atypically sided with Avedisian, noting that hiring professionals can be expensive. Slattery cited as an example the cost of plumbers, which he seems to think is $75 an hour. Side issue: this confirms that Slattery is definitely not from around here.

Even though all of the councilors thought that Platner’s proposed ordinance amendment was crap, they voted for it anyway. All except Avedisian, who abstained.

Why did they vote for crap? Well, they said, they didn’t like the current 15-foot limit and at least Platner’s amendment provides town businesses some relief, albeit expensive. Unspoken was what I think was the collective realization that Platner was ready to stand at the podium and fight for this until dawn. Even though the council members agreed with Avedisian’s misgivings, they just didn’t have the stomach to send it back to Planning where it would go around and around for more months.

They were just sick of it. So was I.

In the future, under what I hope will be new town leadership, I hope we can come back to this subject and take a different, more community-oriented approach, including lining up discounts and incentives for all Charlestown property owners – businesses, homeowners and government and nonprofit agencies – to take practical steps to protect our skies.

[1] I laid out my views about how I would go about protecting our dark skies, which I love as much as anybody, in this article.

[2] At various times during the long and tedious months of debate, Planning was frequently tasked to come up with a scientific or technical basis for many of its claims but couldn’t. A prime example was their claim that outside lights actually increased crime. They were challenged to show evidence for this, couldn’t, and then stopped mentioning it. Frequently, Planning’s best evidence was to cite anonymous anecdoctal evidence (e.g. “I know a guy that…”). It would have been so much easier to two things things this Planning Commission hates to do – (1) instead of trying to micro-regulate, establish a clear town policy and provide town property owners with concrete information and assistance and (2) consult with town businesses, rather than create yet another unfunded mandate on them.