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Thursday, August 8, 2013

New details start to leak out about the impending Whalerock land deal

Clarification of the clarification of the Town Administrator’s clarification
Did Boss Gentz find a pot of gold so he can avoid a vote?
By Will Collette

Whether it’s fact or rumor, I don’t know for sure, but a few more details are starting to dribble out about the impending deal to buy 78 acres out of the 81 acre site of the proposed Whalerock wind turbines by the town of Charlestown for $2,114,415. There is a public hearing scheduled by the Town Council for August 22 and a proposed August 27 closing date.

Under the town’s initial announcement of the deal, the land purchase was to be paid out of existing open space-recreation bond authorization funds without going to the voters for their approval.

Shortly after that announcement, Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz gave the Westerly Sun a hasty “clarification” saying that the Council might still decide to put the issue before the voters after all. 

I reported on Stankiewicz’s “clarification” noting that:
  1. It’s hard to imagine a voter referendum taking place in the five days between the August 22 public hearing and the proposed August 27 closing;
  2. Unless the town had some hidden money somewhere, the town charter called for a vote if a land acquisition cost more than $50,000 beyond the amounts prior-approved by the voters and
  3. Recent past precedent is that major land acquisitions such as this should go before the voters, regardless of whether the transaction involved open space-recreation bond money.
But apparently Charlestown does have a hidden pot of money somewhere - $114,445 to be exact, left over from some earlier open space bond referendum that hasn’t been publicly discussed in years. 

According to the story I’ve heard, this found money is the reason for the odd sales price set for the Whalerock property, a price set largely to avoid taking this deal to the voters.

Since the Charter calls for a new town vote if the funds aren’t available from a source previously approved by the voters, using all of the $2 million bond authority approved in 2004, plus this apparently new-found money would allow the transaction to go forward without being legally required to to go before the voters.

Except of course there are those recent past precedents – the town beach facilities, which were approved, and the YMCA camp scam (“Y-Gate”), which was rejected before it could go before the voters. Plus, the Council members promised to put the Whalerock deal before the voters.

But if there is sufficient bond money available, then technically there is no legal obligation for a referendum. Just a moral one, based on past practices and promises. But we all have learned how little value the CCA-controlled Town Council, particularly Boss Tom Gentz, puts on promises and precedents.

Crafting a sales price to fit the available bond authority and thus avoid a vote, if that pans out to be the case, could turn out to be one of Boss Gentz’s most cynical moves yet.

Look, I want this deal to happen. I’ve been pushing it for the past two years. My colleagues on the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee are on the record in support of negotiating a fair and reasonable deal to buy the land for open space and end the Whalerock nightmare.

It’s positively painful to see our Clown Council screw up what could be town consensus on a deal by failing to be clear, accurate and transparent and then by reneging on long standing public participation procedures, such as putting forward a financial referendum. Not to mention their own promises.

Incidentally, these are all principles that Boss Gentz and his sidekick Deputy Dan Slattery campaigned on. Twice.

It’s really tiresome to have to clarify clarifications of clarifications because the town government loves to deal in secrets, whispers and rumors. Even such simple things as the town’s tree amnesty in June for the disposal of storm-damaged timber became an exercise in frustration when the town dishes out information by the teaspoonful.

Maybe that's a problem the town government has decided to resolve by not even giving out teaspoons of information by building a new stonewall of secrecy.

We all know we need to do the Whalerock deal – for the sake of the town and the mental health of its inhabitants, for the strategic value of that land and finally because it’s either that or suffer a third and final defeat in court. But let’s do it right.

Put the facts and the details in front of the people and then let the people decide.