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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

CORRECTED: Four proposed Town Charter changes on the November ballot

How much will these proposed Charter changes change your life?
Donna Chambers
You can't always get what you want
By Will Collette

Correction: I incorrectly listed Gary Fish as a member of Ill Wind RI. He informs me that he was not and is not a member of Ill Wind RI, nor is he in any way affiliated with the CCA. Sorry for the error - wc.

Charlestown had a very close call over the past year. We could have had some pretty terrible stuff on the November 6 ballot, but thanks to some pushback, it looks like we dodged a bullet.

I’m talking about Charlestown’s mandated biennial ritual of considering changes to Charlestown’s Home Rule Charter – our town Constitution – whether or not such changes are needed, useful, practical or desireable.

When it was time to make the appointments for this year’s Charter Revision Advisory Committee (CRAC), the applicants all came from the Ill Wind RI anti-wind energy NIMBY group. All seven Six of the seven members of the CRAC were plaintiffs in the long, messy and ultimately rejected litigation that has tied up the Whalerock industrial wind farm project. 

While I’m no fan of Whalerock – in fact, I’ve written often about its impracticality – it seemed odd to me that the Ill Winders would decide to try to stack the Charter Revision group.

Dan Slattery - "give me CIP or give me death!"
That is, until their minutes started to appear on the town’s website (but only after I complained to Town Hall that state law required those minutes to be posted).

Those minutes showed that several of the CRAC members were using the charter revision process to push their personal vendettas against those they felt were responsible for Whalerock. Plus, they pushed CCA Councilor Dan Slattery’s pet issue, the Capital Improvement Plan, in what now appears to be payback to Slattery for his behind-the-scenes work for Ill Wind. Read my colleague Bob Yarnall’s WTF series to learn more about Deputy Dan’s clandestine role as the boy on the bike.

Most strident in demanding retribution against the Zoning Board was official CRAC member Donna Chambers and unofficial, though quite active and vocal, member Mike Chambers. For weeks, they pushed one Charter change that would term-limit members of the Zoning Board of Review – and no other board or commission in town. Their vindictiveness was so transparent that eventually, the Chamberses gave it up. That Charter question was dropped. Donna Chambers then denied she ever intended to target the Zoning Board. It was just a coincidence that Zoning, and only Zoning, appeared on the term-limit draft.

The Chamberses, with support from other CRACers, also wanted to tie the hands of any future Town Council to prevent them from acquiring land, entering into partnerships, spending money, or appointing commissioners in ways that would make our already-lumbering town government slow to a crawl.

After the term-limits-for-Zoning proposal died, the remaining six questions went through weeks of revision and review as the Chamberses dug in their heels, insisting that the CRAC should ignore public criticisms and stick with the original charter changes, as written.

None of the charter questions were well received during their first public hearing. In general, the CRAC’s proposals were deemed, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, likely to cause serious damage to the town.

But despite the Chamberses’ resistance, the language was modified by the majority of the committee. A new charter change proposal was added to create a periodic review of town ordinances with an eye toward flagging those ordinances that are outdated, unenforced or unenforceable, such as the tree ordinance, or just plain silly, such as the ordinance forbidding throwing a snowball at a tree or spitting or sleeping in a tent on your own property.

The questions received a final hearing before the Town Council, but not without some controversy. 

Maureen Areglado - violated the state Open Meetings Act
CRAC Secretary Maureen Areglado, spouse of CCA Town Council candidate Ron Areglado, left the country on vacation without writing the minutes for the CRAC’s final meeting. 

I filed an Open Meeting Act complaint, charging that not only did the CRAC violate the law by failing to submit those minutes, but that the scheduled public hearing was invalid without those minutes in the public record.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero admitted that the Town violated the Open Meetings Act, but said it wasn’t done on purpose. The CRAC hearing was postponed for two weeks.

At the final hearing, the CRAC presented its seven proposals (minus the Zoning term limits plus the review of ordinances to find ones that needed to be changed or repealed).

The CRAC only did slightly better at their last public hearing than they did at their first. Once again, speakers, including the chairs of several town commissions, town department heads and Acting Town Administrator Pat Anderson, told the Council that these charter changes were either not needed or not good for Charlestown as they were written.

Both Mike Chambers and Donna Chambers testified against the new charter change proposal calling for the ordinance review because they came to realize that the idea for this charter change actually came from me. Since it was my idea, that made it automatically bad to the two of them, and to Deputy Dan Slattery. Scratch Question #7.

One of the very best ideas the CRAC discussed, but never adopted, was one to stop this silliness of mandating that the town consider Charter revisions every two years. The problem with setting a committee up to come up with charter revisions is that they will inevitably make such recommendations, whether they are necessary or even useful.

Several of the CRAC members came to understand this principle and proposed that the Town Charter be changed so that a mandated Charter review and revision be done only every ten years. But the Chamberses would have none of that and ultimately beat the CRAC into submission. A majority of CRACers voted down this proposal.

The Town Council killed one of the CRAC’s proposals for new procedures for the town to acquire property. The problem with this proposal is the CRAC could never quite figure out what they wanted to block and what they wanted to encourage. They just couldn’t figure out a way to write a Charter change that would prevent the town from ever doing business with developer Larry LeBlanc, whose Whalerock project was the sole reason for bringing all these people together, while not impeding projects favored by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner. In the end, the idea just died.

The CRAC also lost another one of their favorite proposals, which would have set up a long and cumbersome process to fill vacancies and make reappointments to town commissions and boards. Since the town has chronic problems getting enough volunteers for these positions as it is, adding more steps and delays made no sense.

The CRAC managed to squeak through one of its top Ill Wind priorities, which was new language setting out the requirement for a public hearing if the Town Council enters into an agreement that involves town money. The way this question finally turned out pretty much reflects the way such agreements are currently handled, a far cry from the way the CRACers originally had written it. This will be the first Charlestown ballot Question on the November 6 ballot.

NOTE: the state ballot questions will appear ahead of these local ones.

The second Charlestown ballot Question proposes to add a new and detailed purchasing process to the Charter. Town department heads,commission chairs and the Acting Town Administrator all pointed out that this proposal is (a) micromanagement that really doesn’t belong in the Charter, (b) duplicative of existing procedures and (c) silly, given that town voters just changed the Charter provisions on purchasing only two years ago, but the CRAC got to keep this one largely intact. A consolation prize for losing on the issues that really mattered to the Chamberses.

The third Charlestown ballot Question is another consolation prize – the Council kept the CRACed proposal that would mandate that the top vote-getter must be made Council President and the #2 vote-getter must be made Council vice-president. Never mind that this is what usually happens, except when the top vote-getters don’t have majority support on the council. Never mind how much chaos would occur if those two officers don’t have the support of their Council colleagues.

The fourth Charlestown ballot Question is another consolation prize – and a gift to Councilor Slattery – a Charter change to require the town to create and maintain a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). It didn’t matter that (a) the Town Charter already requires the preparation and maintenance of a CIP, (b) the town already has and regularly updates its CIP, as currently required by the Charter and (c) even if the Charter didn’t already require it, state law does and state law controls. But Deputy Dan wanted this so bad that he would have thrown a world-class tantrum if this didn’t stay in the set of Charter questions that will go to the voters.

I plan to vote NO on all four questions because I believe the Town Charter should only be changed when it is needed and when the changes provide some tangible public benefit. 

In their final form, these surviving four questions probably won’t cause much damage – Charlestown Questions One, Three and Four call for procedures that pretty much already exist. Charlestown Question Two on town purchasing creates an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and may add to Charlestown’s overhead costs. The town staff will adjust.

I just don’t think Charlestown voters should approve these questions and send the message that it’s OK for a special interest group to highjack the charter revision process to push a narrow-minded, vindictive agenda. Changing our town’s constitution is a serious matter. I hope that the next Charter Revision Advisory Committee attracts some serious people (no offense, Bob) who have the town's best interest as their top priority.