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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Town lawyer claims secret ballot did not violate the Open Meetings Law, and if it did, it wasn’t on purpose

Peter Ruggiero responds to complaint by former Town Council Prez Deb Carney
By Will Collette
To see more classic Calvin and Hobbes, click here.
The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) has controlled the town of Charlestown since 2008 and during that time, has practiced its well-established penchant for secrecy. After all, the CCA Party runs its own affairs as a secret society that favors anonymity and cloaks its affairs from outside view.

This has led to a long string of violations of the state Open Meetings and open records laws that have drawn condemnation from the Attorney General’s office.

The latest case involves the CCA Party’s use, for the second time this term, of the secret ballot to make decisions in the middle of a public meeting. The last time was the Town Council’s use of the secret ballot to pick Donna Chambers for a patronage appointment to the Chariho School Committee. 

The Attorney General ruled a public body can’t do that and warned Charlestown that if it did it again, it would be subject to fines and sanctions for an intentional violation.

But CCA Party leader Ruth Platner, who is also Charlestown’s Planning Commissar, places secrecy above openness an herself above the law, decided to use a secret ballot to pick a new consultant to work on Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan at Planning’s May 7 meeting.

Former two-term Town Council President Deb Carney filed a complaint against this action with the Attorney General on June 8 (click here and scroll to the end to read that complaint). Deb had also filed the earlier 2013 complaint against the Town Council for its use of the secret ballot which resulted in the state’s Carney v. Charlestown decision that forbids the use of the secret ballot at public meetings and affirmed the principle that public business must be conducted publicly. Click here to read that decision.

Deb cited this earlier decision in her complaint against the Planning Commission for an almost identical transgression and added a second count, the failure of the meeting minutes to show who voted which way in the deciding vote. She cited the state law that requires meeting minutes must reflect such votes, a requirement made even more compelling by the illegal use of a secret ballot in the preliminary vote.

Commissar Platner later said the failure to record the vote was due to the relative rarity of split votes; she said the most Planning Commission decisions are done by consensus or on a unanimous vote. 

As a side note, Ruth will almost certainly get her wish next year since only CCA Party candidates are running for the five open seats in November and thus all are assured of winning. With every member of the Planning Commission owing allegiance to the CCA Party, Ruth won’t ever have to worry about dissenting votes.

But if the Town Council changes hands, breaking the CCA Party’s three-term grip on power, well then, that’s a different story for Ms. Platner’s ambitions to mold Charlestown into her own image.

However, Platner was present when the Town Council committee its open meetings violation through the use of secret ballot and present again when they had to correct their action after the Attorney General ruled against the town.

CCA Party Town Councilor (and candidate for re-election) George Tremblay participated in the Town Council’s illegal secret vote. As Town Council liaison to the Planning Commission, he was present – and said and did nothing – when Platner led her commissionaries into yet another secret vote. I think you’d expect the Town Council liaison to step in rather than allow the illegal vote to take place.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero filed a defense of the indefensible on June 23 (click here to read) which basically says the secret vote wasn’t really a vote citing Webster’s Dictionary; he argued it was actually a “poll.” Deb Carney’s argument cited an actual Attorney General’s opinion, but I guess when all you’ve got is the dictionary, then that’s what you use. Anyway, Ruggiero’s argument was very similar to his losing argument in the previous complaint against secret voting at a public meeting.

Ruggiero also said the second, public vote was viewable on Clerkbase (provided of course you can actually get access to it) and that the 4 to 1 vote was included in the minutes. However, he admits the “minutes…are inaccurate and require amendment to properly record the vote of each member….”

He says this was not intentional and that “when viewed under the entirety of the circumstances” no harm, no foul.

Well, Peter did his duty to defend the paranoid acts of CCA Party leader Platner to test the boundaries of secrecy in town government. We’ll see whether this defense works better than his earlier one.

It’s election season and you will be hearing the CCA Party expound its usual platform positions, lead among them their abiding commitment to open and transparent government, even though their history of actual practice shows a long list of anti-openness and anti-transparency actions. Also click here for more examples.

They’ve managed to lie their way through the past three elections. 

We’ll see in November whether voters’ inattentiveness or short memories works for them again.