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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Episode 10

Snagged on the Epilog Epic-Log
By Robert Yarnall

"I think I fish, in part, because it's an anti-social, bohemian business that, when gone about properly, puts you forever outside the mainstream culture without actually landing you in an institution."   -  John Gierach

I had hoped to be done with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by now, planned to wrap up the entrails of the Whalerock blowfish in last month’s cyber-newspaper and bury the remains in the compost partition of my aging Macbook hard drive. 

I had hoped to be unencumbered by any nonfamilial responsibility, completely unconstrained by self-imposed obligations, real or imagined. No deadlines. No guidelines. Just fishing lines attached to my diverse (I’m writing for a progressive blog; got to work the d-word in somewhere...) collection of spinnerbaits, ready for prime-time autumn fishing, catch & release style. Nirvana for this bohemian.

Hope changed six weeks ago. Superior Court Associate Justice Judith Savage tossed Whalerock back into the muddy waters of Charlestown politics in a quintessential WTF moment of jurisprudence.

Her Honor apparently didn’t appreciate the puppy chow served up by legal beagles Donnelly, Gorham and Ruggiero the year before. She suggested that they had not been sufficiently paper-trained prior to being unleashed by their respective owners, the neighborhood activist group known as Illwind, Larry LeBlanc’s Whalerock LLC, and the Town of Charlestown, to frolic in her courtroom.

Time for proper obedience training at the Chucksville Zoning Board Kennel Club, sayeth the Judge. Put ye tails between ye legs, scamper outta here, stay off the grass, and do your business as prescribed by the doggie licenses. Just “Git-R-Done” so Larry the Turbine Guy can get on with his life.

Man, this stuff could take a while. All the waters of the earth could dry up before the doggie-do gets a do-over. So I’m just going to cut the bait, then I’m going fishing for real, no more of this metaphoric serialized tiptoeing.

Here it is…

When Whalerock first surfaced and Illwind rose up to confront it, no one was more pissed off than yours truly. In the initial phase of the neighborhood resistance, I employed my marginal writing skills to lambast the style and substance of then-media newbie Progressive Charlestown, especially its point man, punk-blogger Will Collette, in an Illwind group email.

Within a few hours, I received a private email from a gentleman who lives on Sanctuary Road, a rough-hewn dirt pathway skirting Watchaug Pond, the local cathedral for smallmouth bass in southern New England. The sender was Irwin Birnbaum. His message was succinct, eight words:

“You really know how to form a coalition.”

If there had been a large rock near my computer workstation, I would have crawled under it. Irwin Birnbaum is not your average Charlestown retiree. Not even close. He is a humble gentleman whose distinguished career combines law and medicine. He served the Yale University School of Medicine both as Chief Operating Officer and Assistant Professor of Medicine.

I was mortified that I had managed to attract The Barrister’s attention in a less-than-positive manner, although “sophomoric” would be a more apt descriptor of my stylistic output that day. In any event, I replied to Dr. Birnbaum as meekly as I could:

“Dr. Birnbaum, I value your opinion and I apologize for my comments.”

To which he cordially replied, “Thank you. Irwin.”

The thing about high-achieving people, especially academics such as Irwin, is that the best among them are neither didactic nor authoritarian in their instruction or counsel. Instead, they suggest a number of alternative directions to explore and trust you to use your common sense to make an informed decision.

I took Irwin Birnbaum’s advisory that day to mean that I needed to acquaint myself with the entity known as Progressive Charlestown and its lead protagonists, Will Collette and Tom Ferrio, that the eventual outcome of Whalerock would hinge more on cooperation among factions rather than competition among them. In other words, coalitions needed to be nurtured, not dismissed.

Soon thereafter, I met with Messers Collette and Ferrio at The Cove.  I was familiar with their respective professional backgrounds based on their online biographies, and I shared mine at that time, focusing on my journalism background and my knowledge of local history culled primarily from friendships with members of both town Republicans and town Democrats dating back to 1984, when my wife and I bought a house lot in the Sachem Passage development from realtor Doug Randall.  

The three decades of Charlietowners I have been privileged to know are starting points for other stories. What is relevant right now is the nature of my initial meeting with Will and Tom. I was curious about how they thought they could establish substantive credibility for their local news analysis while embedding it in a snarky style made popular by the Madison, Wisconsin-based online parody, The Onion.

Will Collette wasted no time in explaining his utilization of the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) and the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) to obtain documentation either supporting or refuting claims made by local politicians. He dealt me in on the email threads shared by PC editors and contributors so I could watch the stories develop and/or collapse, as the case may be.

So here’s another inconvenient truth: In too many cases, claims made by local government leaders regarding phone calls allegedly placed to federal officials, documents allegedly received from intergovernmental agencies, or land use opinions allegedly forwarded via email by assorted federal bureaucrats couldn’t be verified as described by the claimant. The Ninigret Park “ownership” brouhaha is a perfect example.

Either our elected officials are intentionally misleading the public or, as policymakers, they just aren’t as smart as they pretend to be. I subscribe to the latter view and respectfully apply the concept of Hanlon’s razor to the current reincarnation of the CCA, aka Conflicted Citizens Anonymous: “Ascribe not to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

When I left journalism school in 1970 to become a teacher, the FOIA and APRA were not available as standard tools for investigative reporting. Woodward & Bernstein’s Watergate model led to the changes now embodied in public records access laws. Before the early ‘70s, reporters plied prospective news sources with beer and cigarettes in late-night bars. As a consequence, the life expectancy of veteran newsmen was about 60 years.  

The FOIA and APRA public information access tools utilized by Progressive Charlestown are double-edged swords. Both are time- and labor-intensive research exercises and can tax the limited resources of mainstream media outlets, which are necessarily constrained by deadlines and economics. But both are the weapons of choice for new-age cyber-journalists who utilize them to combat political malfeasance, whether such activity is the result of targeted malice or generalized incompetence.

If you care enough to apply the Woodward-Bernstein model of investigative journalism, essentially a storyboard that requires a writer to link specific events to specific time frames to verify that specified events occurred as alleged, you will find, as I did, that a number of recent scenarios described and detailed by elected town officials just don’t pass the test.

Start off with the Ninigret Park “stadium lighting” controversy for an appetizer. Chow down on the DiLibero termination proceedings for the main course. Enjoy a piece of Y-gate layer cake like Ed Veazey did. He won’t soon forget that treat, unlike pastry chef Russ Ricci. Any combination leaves a bad taste in an impartial observer’s mouth.

When I suggested to my neighbors Ron & Maureen Areglado that Irwin Birnbaum’s characterization of the DiLibero firing as a “hatchet job” seemed dead-on based on the application of the Woodward-Bernstein storyboard exercise, they were politely dismissive, apparently unwilling to reconstruct the story themselves.

Sad. It would have been an easy task for the former elementary school principals, presumably well versed in reading and writing skills development tasks, to arrive at the same conclusion that Irwin did, and that I had as well. I considered then, as I do now, their position on the DiLibero proceedings to be both curious and conspicuous, given their respective academic backgrounds. I’m going to revisit this issue in the near future. It deserves further study, as the saying goes.

Concurrent with my conversation with the Areglados, I emailed Town Council Vice President Dan Slattery, who had led the charge to defrock town administrator William DiLibero. Slattery claimed he had amassed a number of documents and related communications from federal sources pegging Bill for a number of transgressions with respect to federal policies and protocols. [1]

I referred to Dr. Birnbaum’s commentary on the blog, as well as his Westerly Sun Letter to the Editor, in an email to Councilman Slattery. Slattery responded by telling me that the salient facts relating to DiLibero’s termination were proprietary information shared in Town Council executive sessions and, therefore, he could not comment further. CYA. Nice.

Slattery deftly (he thought) avoided commenting on the actual subject of my email, that being the litany of unsubstantiated allegations he had been trumpeting in public discourse for several months prior to DiLibero’s termination. Instead, he seemed to imply that DiLibero had been engaged in some form of criminal activity involving unnamed co-conspirators, perhaps land developers, energy consultants, park event vendors, etc. Whatever. You bet.

If DiLibero had been engaged in such scurrilous activity, Slattery, allegedly a former Department of Justice official, would have been obligated to report it to the Charlestown Police, lest he open himself up to an obstruction-of-justice charge. Right? Yes? No?

The fact of the matter is that the entire Whalerock fiasco, from start to whenever-finish, was an anomaly of epic proportions. Longtime business competitors, who ordinarily wouldn’t share a foxhole in a rocket attack, concocted alliances and partnerships that even Satan wouldn’t underwrite. Relative newcomers to town accused longtime residents of accepting bribes, offering bribes, or arranging bribes, involving cash, property, house pets, farm equipment, and/or auto body supplies.

Whalerock abutter and current Planning Commission candidate Joe Dolock had all this figured out a long time ago. As detailed in previous WTF episodes, Illwind’s intelligentsia, Areglado et al., dismissed his input as being not particularly relevant to their cause, whatever that may turn out to be.  

Every town has a Whalerock of one sort or another. Otherwise rational people make irrational, emotion-laden decisions, so outraged are they by the injustices foisted on them by the ruling oligarchies, whatever flavor-of-the-month politics they feature. So it goes. Always.

I leave you with this one tidbit of insanity, heretofore unbeknown to average Whalerockers and Whalerockettes…

The very afternoon that Illwind Attorney James Donnelly filed the final injunction to logjam Larry LeBlanc’s desperate attempt to reconstitute Twin Turbines on the Rocks, the Illwind intelligentsia, that being the Areglados, the Chamberses, and Kristan O’Connor, had somehow made a unilateral decision to fire him.

As dumb luck would have it, they couldn’t find Donnelly to give him the good news before he saved their collective butts. Apparently they felt he had not kept them fully informed of his every move. Perhaps they felt he wasn’t micromanageable enough.

Gee, that sounds familiar. Must be an epidemic.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Gone fishing.

[1] Progressive Charlestown examined the sum and substance of Slattery’s allegations in Will Collette’s “Kill Bill” story.  Over the course of the seven-part series, Irwin Birnbaum complimented Collette on the scope and sequence of his research, signing onto the blog only as “irwinb”, absent any reference to his full identity and distinguished professional background. But we all knew, by that time, the true measure of the man.