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Friday, March 21, 2014

UPDATED: Sunshine Week and Charlestown’s dark skies

In Charlestown, “openness and transparency” is just CCA Party rhetoric
By Will Collette

UPDATE: Charlestown is shopping for a new system to carry video coverage of town meetings. Details below. 

Every year, news reporters and editors “celebrate” Sunshine Week to draw public attention to the long-running and on-going struggle over the public’s right to know.

During much of this past year, the public learned that the government seems pretty determined to know everything about you but is less enthusiastic about your right to know what’s happening within the government.

We have our own version of that debate happening right here in Charlestown when it comes to how Charlestown government works. 

With each passing year, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and its elected officials who control all of the levers of power in Charlestown work at making it harder and harder to know what they are doing on your behalf and with your money.

Let’s look at some examples from the past year:

  • The state Attorney General also slapped the Town Council down for using a secret ballot during an open Council meeting to appoint one of their CCA Party supporters, Donna Chambers, to the Chariho School Committee. This secret ballot was CCA Party Councilor Crocodile Dan Slattery’s idea – he called it the “Australian Ballot,” apparently thinking that this made it OK. Yeah, right, mate! The Attorney General didn’t think it was such a great idea and even used their ruling in this matter as a teaching example of what not to during their annual open government conference. 
  • Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA Party) rammed a decision to spend $2.14 million of town money to purchase the site of the proposed Whalerock wind turbine project stating that it was a dire emergency, even though documents released by the town the day after the vote to spend the money showed there was no emergency at all, and that the issue could have been taken to the voters for their final decision after all. Taxpayers should have had access to all those records in the day-after document dump before the Council took its vote.
  • During the Whalerock battle, Gentz made a backdoor deal with Whalerock opponents to spend $50,000 of town money to hire a lawyer – John O. Mancini – who ended up representing those private citizens on the public’s dime. During Zoning Board hearings, Mancini kept referring to them as “anonymous abutters.” 
  • The town paid all of Mancini’s bills without invoices detailing what he did for the money and who he actually represented. He finally submitted itemized statements, but has never revealed who he actually represented – i.e. who the hell were those “anonymous abutters” – for $50,000 in town taxpayer money.
  • Charlestown spends roughly $20,000 a year for the Clerkbase recording and document service. You're supposed to be able to view all meetings of the Town Council, Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Review, live and then whenever you want. The video is supposed to be indexed so that you can click on special things you want to see and hear. Except many times you can't. Clerkbase is temperamental about internet browsers, generally rejecting all but Internet Explorer. Even using Explorer, sometimes you have to go in through the back door, using a special, supposedly temporary fix you can read about here. 
On March 8, Town Administrator Stankiewicz reported to the Town Council that the Town should consider replacing Clerkbase with another system. Here's his report: 

"Public Meeting Video/Website – The Town Hall has received several concerns on our current website and video replay of public meetings. In particular, several individuals have reported the inability to view archived and “real time” videos using Apple products [also Google Chrome and other PC based browsers]. Other concerns include the “date stamping” for easier viewing with the document interface. 

"Currently the Town has two contracts with a vendor [Clerkbase] for this service. One contract expires in April 2014, The second contract expires in June 2015. 

Town staff is reviewing other vendors to determine whether the current contractor or another vendor will provide a better service at a competitive price. In that vein, we will be extending the April 2014 contract on a month-to-month basis until a determination is made and the Council is apprised of the outcome."
  • Planning Commission meetings are rarely indexed, that is, when they are actually recorded. If you go back through the Clerkbase record, you'll find gaps. I was told that Commission members sometimes kicked the plugs and disconnected the system. All these Clerkbase problems has been going on since former Town Clerk Jodi LaCroix retired almost exactly three years ago. Clerkbase needs to be fixed, once and for all, or be replaced. 
  • The jury is still out on the town’s new Town Council-approved policy to begin assessing fees on people whose open records request exceed a certain amount. Since much of what we report in Progressive Charlestown is based on public records we receive from the town, it remains to be seen whether this new policy will be used to curb our ability to bring you information that lets you look inside town government.
The CCA Party has been running Charlestown town government since 2008, all the while claiming they stand for open, honest and transparent government. But throughout that period, we’ve seen regular violations of the state open meetings and open records laws, secret meetings, back-room deals, and a government that seems to work best for those people who give money to the CCA Party. These CCA donors often stand to receive benefits that will be paid for by the rest of the taxpayers.

It's not surprising, given the cult-like way the CCA Party operates. They are a closed, secret society that discloses nothing other than what is required by law. You are not allowed to join even if you want to. The best you can do is sign up for their irregular e-mail bleats.

Before they took power, they held annual meetings (and promised to continue the practice) but their last open annual meeting was in 2008. Now they only meet in secret. They used to hold annual leadership elections, but apparently have not done so since 2012.

They lie about their campaign donors. 60% of their money comes from non-residents, but the CCA lists their donors' Charlestown vacation home addresses as if that was where they lived.

Thus, it's no surprise that the CCA Party would deliver elected officials who practice that same cult of secrecy when they assume public office, as the while saying they believe in "open, professional and ethical government that is transparent" as it says in the CCA platform.

Hardly anyone in town would know this is happening if not for the Sunshine Laws that protect your right to know and the willingness of determined people, like for example Deb Carney and Jack Donoghue, who are willing to fight for that right.