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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Celebrating Sunshine Week in the dark

Step into the light, CCA
"Sunshine is too darn bright!"
By Will Collette

We’ve just wrapped up the annual Sunshine Week, the national celebration of open and transparent government. 

Organized primarily by journalists, Sunshine Week focuses on the public’s right to access to government information and meetings, on progress made and on barriers to the right to know.

As Charlestown’s dominant political party for the past six years, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) has made “open and transparent government” its main mantra, reciting with religious zeal the importance of openness and transparency. 

Except, for the CCA Party, that openness and transparency only applies to others. When it comes to the conduct of CCA Party’s elected town officers, openness and transparency is just a quaint artifact. An option. Sometimes an inconvenience.

The CCA Party started its celebration of Sunshine Week in true fashion when its Town Council majority used an illegal secret ballot to pick an unqualified CCA sycophant, Donna Chambers, over two far more qualified applicants to serve as Charlestown representative on the Chariho School Committee. They didn’t even announce the final vote tally, never mind which Council member voted for which of the three Chariho applicants. But no matter, they got their CCA party loyalist the gig.

It was great to see CCA Town Council boss Tom Gentz explain to the Westerly Sun that there was nothing wrong with using the secret ballot - the "Australian Ballot," as CCA Councilor Crocodile Dan Slattery described it - to conduct public business since they had done it once before (to pick the Search Committee for the new Town Administrator) and had gotten away with it. Although Gentz was publicly admonished by Evelyn Smith at the time, no one filed an actual complaint, so Boss Gentz figures it must be all right.

My colleague Linda Felaco compared that to arguing against getting a ticket for running a red light by saying you weren't ticketed all the previous times you ran that red light.

The CCA Council majority used secrecy in the last Council term to mask its effort to divert almost a million dollars in Charlestown and state funds to buy a junked-out old campground worth only a small fraction of that amount. That scheme – “Y-Gate” – was done through secret meetings in violation of state law. It was attempted grand theft, short and sweet.

It wasn't until former Town Councilor Gregg Avedisian and one of the Y-Gate leaders, Russ Ricci of the Charlestown Land Trust, had to give testimony under oath did we learn how dark and secretive the backroom scheming was. Click here for Avedisian's testimony and click here for Ricci's.

There’s a lot more to the disconnect between the CCA Party’s rhetoric about open and transparent government and its actual performance. Whether it’s CCA Party appointees who fail to post meeting minutes or who accidentally kick the wires to turn off Clerkbase recordings or Council meetings where not even all the Councilors receive notice, never mind the public, the CCA Party has shown an interest in openness and transparency only when they think it makes them look good.

No joke: this is how the town sent Larisa's bills - every
page looked like this and the one to the bottom right
And don’t get me started about public records! The state law prescribes that in general, all government records should be deemed public unless they are specifically exempted. You should be able to look at these records on request. You should be able to get these records in your hands in ten business days or less.

That’s not been my experience over the past two years, unfortunately. 

 As Progressive Charlestown readers know, our news coverage is based on records – without documentation, we are reluctant to address any subject. We don’t follow the CCA Party lead of simply making stuff up. Well, mostly.

But when it gets hard to obtain public records, it makes it hard to inform the public. As an investigator, it also makes me suspicious, but that’s another matter.

Every billing detail was blacked out
Just consider how much resistance I got when I asked to see the bills submitted by the CCA Party’s darling Indian fighter, attorney Joe Larisa, who is paid a minimum of $25,000 a year just be to on call to put down any insurrection by the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Not to perform any actual work – just to be there. It’s no wonder the CCA-controlled town government didn’t want to disclose those records.

Eventually, I did force the town to reveal the uncensored version of Larisa's bills, which you can read by clicking here.

I am hopeful that compliance with the state Access to Public Records Act (APRA) will improve soon. It needs to, because access to information is the essence of good government.

In honor of Sunshine Week, click here for some great resource materials from the Rhode Island ACLU on how to use the state law. Also, please check out Linda’s tribute to Sunshine Week from last year – her article, “CCA promotes dark skies and open space without sunshine or openness.

And here, for your handy-dandy reference, is a nice chart that illustrates how the open records law is supposed to work in Rhode Island. In Charlestown, consider that to be “in theory.”