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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Ten stories of 2012

Fear, lies, bugs and class war topped the bill in 2012
By Will Collette

Of course, 2012’s big stories covered in Progressive Charlestown are the 2012 election, the scandal over the attempted YMCA Camp caper, the “Kill Bill” Campaign mounted by the CCA against former Town Administrator Bill DiLibero, Hurricane Sandy and the battle over who controls Ninigret Park.

While these are certainly stand-outs among the 1900 articles we ran in Progressive Charlestown during 2012, many of these top stories were actually composites of many distinct topics. Plus, there are other stories as well that make the Progressive Charlestown editors’ Top Ten Picks for 2012[1].

10. Apocalypse 2012.

Not only did Rev. Harold Camping come back one more time with another end-of-the-world prediction[2], but we also heard repeated, breathless warnings from the Charlestown Citizens Alliance about dire threats to the very fabric of Charlestown’s existence. Among them: the “Carcieri Fix,” the “Builders’ Bill,” affordable housing and Democrats. Fortunately for Charlestown, no matter what the threat or how hopeless the odds of survival, the CCA was there as Charlestown’s best line of defense.

9. Open and transparent attacks on open and transparent reporting.

Throughout the year and particularly in the run-up to the 2012 election, the CCA vociferously and repeatedly attacked Progressive Charlestown for exposing the CCA’s malfeasance and challenging the CCA’s often bizarre claims that, among other things, the Narragansetts are looking for any opening to build a casino in Charlestown, the federal government was on the verge of seizing Ninigret Park, and building decent toilets at town beaches would only encourage free-loaders.

The CCA-led Charlestown government advanced its own version of openness and transparency by allowing the very useful Clerkbase system to deteriorate, censoring speakers and town records, dealing in secret to bilk taxpayers and frequently breaching the state Open Meetings law.

8. The weather.

It wasn’t just Hurricane Sandy pummeling the RI coast and trashing beachfront properties. We felt the effects of climate change throughout the year through freakish temperature shifts – a warm winter and an even warmer summer that led to expanded problems with parasites such as mosquitoes, ticks, Asian long-horned beetles, etc. We had long stretches where our air was unhealthy. 

Millstone, our local nuclear power plant, had to shut down for two weeks because the seawater it uses for cooling was too warm. Scientists say it’s only going to get worse.

7. Backlash against green energy.

We spent most of 2011 fighting over the bizarre idea that in order to block the unpopular Whalerock industrial wind farm, Charlestown should ban all wind power. In the end, Charlestown enacted a sweeping antiwind ordinance that the CCA claims, creative revisionists that they are, actually helped homeowners who wanted green power to install small wind generators.

That is, until you read the fine print in the ordinance and discover that, to get a permit for a small generator, you have to do the impossible.

But that wasn’t all. A municipal wind-power project, approved by the Town Council and driven by CCA Town Council boss Tom Gentz, became one of the central issues in the CCA’s “Kill Bill” DiLibero campaign. Bill DiLibero’s offense: he sought various options to make the project work.

Add to that DiLibero’s offense in exploring the feasibility of a biofuels project that could be placed on the capped toxic waste site right off Route Two near Kenyon. Repurposing waste sites like that is considered a smart way to use otherwise unusable land. But not in Charlestown and DiLibero had to go.

Despite the clear problems we experience due to climate change, it will be a long time before more “green energy” projects are taken seriously in this town.

6. Central Planning power grab.

Council boss Gentz is very good at following orders
I jokingly refer to Ruth Platner, the head of Charlestown’s elected Planning Commission, as “Commissar” Platner. But there’s a point behind the joke, which is that under Platner’s leadership, the Planning Commission has become the single most powerful body in Charlestown.

With the cooperation of her CCA allies on the Town Council, Platner has expanded the reach of the Planning Commission far beyond what is written in state law or Charlestown’s Home Rule Charter to touch the lives and livelihoods of every Charlestown property owner.

There’s even a name for it: the Platner Principle. This is an old section of the Charlestown zoning ordinance that Platner has made her own: “In Charlestown zoning, any use not permitted is prohibited.” So if you can’t find a particular use for your property listed in the Charlestown zoning ordinance, Platner contends that such a use is forbidden.

Whether it’s aggressive moves to control every aspect of life in Charlestown or using any and every trick in the book to push for more open-space acquisition, 2012 was the year when Commissar Platner and the Planning Commission kicked the grab for power into high gear.

5. Class War.

This is not a new story, but it is one that took on important significance in 2012. Charlestown is a small rural community where we have vast wealth and 10% unemployment. Wealthy nonresidents spent tens of thousands of dollars to keep the CCA in power, while our local food programs for the poor can’t keep up with demand.

We have Council members like Dan Slattery who wanted to investigate whether people who fall behind on paying their taxes are deadbeats “making $80,000 a year and maxing out on their credit cards.” Another scheme of Slattery’s would have made struggling homeowners come before a public panel to plead for tax relief and, of course, provide personal financial documents to support their plea.

We have Council boss Tom Gentz, owner of two homes in Charlestown worth more than $1 million and a brace of classic Porsche sports cars, calling himself “a conservative person on a fixed income[3]” and mounting an assault to upend the state’s affordable housing law. Yep, there is a class war in Charlestown – by the rich against everyone else. It’s time we all started fighting back.

4. The attack on affordable housing.

George Tremblay and the invisible elderly embezzlers
This is where the CCA’s general distaste for working-class people and its radical policies on land use come together.

State law requires that every municipality in Rhode Island provide the opportunity for low- and moderate-income people to acquire affordable housing by requiring that, by the year 2025, at least 10% of the municipality’s housing stock should meet the state’s standard for affordability. Each municipality is encouraged to find its own way to meet that reasonable, long-term goal.

While the language of the law does have an urban slant, most Rhode Island rural towns have made substantial progress toward achieving that goal. But not Charlestown.

The CCA has always opposed affordable housing and offered alternatives such as giving people who need affordable housing vouchers to move to Westerly. (I’m not making this up.)

In 2012, the CCA town leaders really turned up the volume in their attacks against affordable housing and also turned up the crazy.

One of the CCA’s resident “scientists,” George Tremblay, concocted a “research” report that attempted to give the CCA’s assault against affordable housing some credibility by including actual charts and graphs.
Of course, when you read the narrative, or listen to Tremblay talk about what the numbers supposedly mean, you realize that the research is phony and his interpretations are not just biased but ridiculous.

Among Tremblay’s key points, for which he offered not a shred of evidence: affordable housing is being exploited by elderly millionaires – even billionaires – who are scooping up this housing as investments.
Charlestown wants the state to either (a) give Charlestown a special exemption from compliance with state law or (b) scrap the state law altogether. And Council boss Tom Gentz is actually shocked that the General Assembly has not adopted this proposal.

Tied for first place: the “Kill Bill” campaign, the Battle for Ninigret Park and Y-Gate.

DiLibero: first the CCA loved him, then they couldn't
wait to get rid of him
We wrote a lot about these three surreal episodes in Charlestown’s very weird 2012. Looking back at these stories, there are two common threads: fear and lies.

“Kill Bill” was the CCA campaign to force Town Administrator Bill DiLibero to leave his job. The CCA crafted a web of lies about DiLibero’s actions as Charlestown’s chief executive, taking actions he had been previously praised for and decisions he had made in the interest of the town and twisting them beyond recognition.

In the end, the hand-writing was on the wall. DiLibero negotiated a severance deal and left.

But this saga lives on as the Council now tries to find his replacement in light of Charlestown’s reputation as a place that chews up and spits out town administrators with regularity.

It lives on in Lisa DiBello’s bizarre lawsuit that claimed that DiLibero was the spear point of a five-year conspiracy involving much of town government to fire her for cause. It lives on in Jim Mageau’s lawsuit against Charlestown that challenges whether Charlestown’s severance deal negotiations violated the state Open Meetings Act.

Charlie Vandemoer finally got his MOU, but tore up
Charlestown in the process
The Battle for Ninigret Park is intertwined with “Kill Bill” in that it took a series of erroneous and unprofessional interpretations of the land deal that led to Charlestown’s ownership of Ninigret Park and ginned it up into a crisis where, during most of the spring of 2012, the CCA was actually arguing that we were in grave danger of having the federal government take over Ninigret Park. And they blamed Bill DiLibero for causing this fake crisis when he attempted to do his job.

The CCA solution was to not only get rid of DiLibero, but to strip the Parks and Recreation Commission of its oversight of Ninigret Park and to give that authority to our federal overseer, US Fish and Wildlife’s local chief, Charlie Vandemoer, and to a new committee comprised of CCA allies.

As the weeks passed, and the flaws in the CCA fear campaign became evident, the crisis ended in a whimper when Charlestown and Charlie Vandemoer signed a one-year agreement to talk to each other.
“Y-Gate” was the capper to a truly strange year. 

Y-Gate was 2012's issue that just wouldn't die
In a nutshell, CCA’s Tom Gentz and Ruth Platner got it in their heads that the town needed to put up half a million dollars of town taxpayer money to finance the Charlestown Land Trust’s purchase of 27.5 acres of land on Watchaug Pond, an abandoned, pretty much trashed-out campground owned by the Westerly YMCA.

The Y-Gate cabal (comprised of the CCA, Westerly YMCA, Charlestown Land Trust and the mostly nonresident Sonquipaug Association that borders the campground) concocted the story that this rural dump was a crown jewel akin to Yosemite and worth the nearly $1 million of combined state and Charlestown tax dollars they wanted to pay the Westerly Y.

 The deal was worked out in secret and then approved at last February’s Town Council meeting. The deal would have gone through if not for a lawsuit by Dr. Jack Donoghue that made the argument, since upheld by the court, that the town violated the Open Meetings Act.

Subsequent investigations by Progressive Charlestown that provided the evidence that the deal was a rip-off spurred public protests that, finally, led the YMCA to find another buyer to avoid more damage to its reputation.

There are a few unfinished threads to the Y-Gate story, most significant of which is the court’s ruling in the last remaining issue in Dr. Donoghue’s case – whether the secret Y-gate taskforce that concocted the deal violated the Open Meetings Act.

Despite the extreme chutzpah the CCA displayed in these three scandals, their message of fear and lies allowed them to cruise past strong Democratic opposition to retain their hold on power in the November election. In Charlestown, it’s true that you can fool most of the people most of the time.


Getting Cathie elected and Donna re-elected
was one of the best things in 2012
There were other contenders for the top story list. Town Council member Lisa DiBello’s misadventures top the runner-up list. We also gave tax issues lots of coverage, but in the end, we felt that taxes were part of the class war thread. The economy and the CCA’s attacks on small business was also a contender. 

I almost included Rep. Donna Walsh’s campaign for re-election (especially her strange opponents and their colorful criminal records) and Cathie Cool Rumsey’s successful bid to unseat a two-term incumbent to win one of the two State Senate positions that serve Charlestown.

I’d like to hope that after such a wild year of Charlestown politics, we can all settle down and focus on the common good. But I am not betting on it.

[1] As most Progressive Charlestown readers know, we provide lots of links both to earlier stories and to original sources. That’s not practical for these top stories of the year because we published lots of articles on each of the topics (that’s what got them onto the Top Ten list). To see the original reporting, click on the “Topics” tab at the top of the page. Then click on each subject to look at a reverse chronological presentation of the articles on that subject.

[2] Then there’s the supposed Mayan calendar apocal-mania that the world would come to an end on December 21.

[3] Charlestown Town Council meeting, May 9, 2012