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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Final Peeps® push, Narragansetts testify before Congress, Taylor Swift tax and other crazy politics and lots of new job postings

New plate of Charlestown Tapas for the discerning reader
By Will Collette

Things you never knew about Peeps®

Easter is less than one week away. For me, the main reason to celebrate Easter is marshmallow Peeps®, pretty much a forbidden food since I learned that I am diabetic. But it’s great having them around, stale of course, in case of low blood sugar episodes. 

Anyway, I am not the only one with Peeps® on the mind, evidenced by all the Peeps® diorama contests (click here and here for examples. The folks at Mental Floss did their part to contribute to our greater understanding and appreciation of Peeps® with this insightful list of “Twenty Delicious Facts About Peeps®.”

Narragansett leader testifies before US Senate

Narragansett Tribal Council member Randy Noka traveled to DC to give testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the so-called “Carcieri Fix” on March 25 The "Carcieri Fix" is legislation that would declare the clear intent of Congress that the nation’s laws on the relationship between Indian tribes and the government apply to all tribes, and not just those who have been federally recognized prior to 1934.

That's Randy Noka speaking at a ceremony marking the anniversary
of the infamous Smoke Shop raid. Photo by Will Collette
A 2009 Supreme Court decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, ruled that Congress was not clear about that distinction. Somehow, the Court reasoned, Congress did not intend that there should be equal justice under law. 

By the way, those words "Equal Justice Under Law," are carved over the front portico of the Supreme Court.

The Carcieri decision arose from Charlestown’s dispute with the Narragansetts over the Tribe’s plan to build affordable housing for low-income elderly tribal members. That case morphed into one that stripped more than 500 tribes, including the Narragansetts of key sovereignty rights.

“Carcieri Fix” legislation, in its ideal form, would simply clarify that, yes indeed, Congress does want its laws to apply equally. The latest version of such legislation was introduced by ranking Democrat on the committee Jon Tester (D-Montana).

Noka testified in his capacity as Vice President of the United South & Eastern Tribes. Charlestown’s professional Indian fighter, Joe Larisa, was not listed on the panels. Maybe he was in the audience fuming and chewing on his shoes.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) which controls every elected position in Charlestown is unalterably opposed to the “Carcieri Fix” in any form.

Special Election set for House District 33

When long-time state Representative Donald Lally (D-District 33) abruptly announced his decision to resign his seat to “spend more time with his family,” it opened the door for an interesting race to replace him. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea set June 9 as the date for the special election.

Already, seven people have emerged as candidates. Leading the pack are Democrats Carol Hagan McEntee (a member of the South Kingstown Town Council) and Susan Cicilline Buonanno (sister of US Representative David Cicilline). 

Two other Democrats, Jason Colonies and Eugene Kelly, are likely candidates and two independents (Elizabeth Candas and James L. McKnight Jr.). There is only one Republican in the mix so far, Robert A. Trager who ran and lost against Lally in 2012.

I haven’t spotted or found out the back story to Lally’s surprise move, at least not yet.

Radical nullification group excited about Flip bill on drones

Here's our Tea Party boy
The Tenth Amendment Center, a radical organization that advocates that states “nullify” – ignore or fail to abide by – federal laws they don’t like has given their stamp of approval to a bill introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly by their former legal advisor Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi (Tea Party-Lincoln) that would curb the use of drones by law enforcement officials.

This terrible problem, which largely exists only in Flip’s fevered imagination, would be remedied by H-5454, would, according to the 10th Amendment Center, “prohibit law enforcement use drones by requiring a warrant for 'any' use, surveillance or not.”

That’s a pretty amazing amount of over-reach since there are lots of quite sensible uses of drone technology that would be banned under Flip’s bill, such as the search for missing persons, traffic control and land use and environmental monitoring. 

I can understand why some might believe there is a need for a warrant if the police are using drones to gather information in an investigation, in the same way that wiretaps and other electronic surveillance are regulated. However, police do not need a warrant to surveil a suspect from the street or for that matter, from anywhere outside the subject's property.

Fortunately, given Filippi’s status at the General Assembly as an oddball Libertarian, pseudo-independent but actually a Republican freshman, the odds of this or any of Filippi’s legislation actually getting passed is close to nil.

Block wants to axe fire districts

Ken Block now seems to have a lot of extra time on his hands after losing his bids to become Governor under his so-called Moderate Party and most recently as a Republican. What better use of time than to resume his role as one of the state’s many know-it-alls.

Block has now taken aim at Fire Districts, claiming that per capita cost of fire-fighting is too high. He says it’s because the state has too many fire districts, citing Lincoln (Rep. Blake Filippi’s home town) as an example. Lincoln has 21,000 people but has six fire districts each with its own chief.

The same could be said for Charlestown with its population of less than 8,000 where we have the Charlestown Fire District with two active fire houses, Dunn’s Corner with its station on Route One and the Quonochontaug Central and Shelter Harbor Fire Districts.

Some conservatives have zeroed in on fire districts because of the boondoggle at Central Coventry, but generally, they use it as another front in their larger war against unionized public workers. Merging fire districts would, they say, eliminate waste, but what they really mean is cutting firefighters. In particular, professional firefighters who, by and large, are union members.

Building Photo
This is one of 15 pricey beach properties owned by Charlestown's
two fake fire districts. 
Owned by the Quonochontaug Central “Fire”
District. This is on 4.19 acres, and is assessed at only $73,900.
Photo from Charlestown Tax Assessor database
No one is eager to pay more taxes. However, I think if you asked the average person – urban, suburban or rural – if they would like to see fire protection service cut, fire stations closed and response times lengthened – they would want to see fire protection maintained at least at its present levels, if not improved.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with fire districts or that no reforms or consolidations should ever be considered. 

However, I have a suggestion for where to start.

When I listed the fire districts that cover Charlestown, two of the four districts – Quonochontaug Central and Shady Harbor –are fake fire districts. They provide no fire protection. They pay Dunn’s Corner to provide actual fire coverage to their fake fire district members.

The actual purpose of those fire districts is to provide the wealthy inhabitants of those neighborhoods with a tax-deductible way to get such amenities as tennis courts, public water, trash pick-up, moorings, private beaches, snow removal etc.

Those and even more services are provided through the fire district. The fake fire district then sends out property tax bills that are deductible on residents’ state and federal income taxes.

On top of that, these fire districts own a lot of property that is either not taxed at all or is assessed at incredibly low levels. Click here for more details. It’d be a great idea to strip fire districts of that title and the privileges that go with it unless they actually fight fires.

Rhode Island rightwing hissy fit over “Taylor Swift Tax” gets louder

Taylor Swift Static animated GIFI have not been a fan of Gov. Gina Raimondo, but I am a big fan of her proposal to levy a state property tax on absentee-owned million dollar-plus properties, swiftly dubbed the “Taylor Swift Tax” after our famous Westerly part-time neighbor who owns a swanky mansion on Watch Hill. For once, we’ve got a tax proposal that seeks to tax somebody who can afford to pay.

And don’t give me this crap that it will discourage gazillionaires from coming to Rhode Island or will somehow make gazillionaires abandon their waterfront properties along our coast. Let them try to find equivalent value in the Hamptons or the Vineyard or California.

Let them find a state that allows them to set up fake fire districts (see above) that lets them dodge taxes by letting them deduce the cost of amenities the rest of us have to pay for.

But conservative Rhode Islanders see this modest move as a forerunner of socialist revolution. I expected that from the wingnuts at Ocean State Current, but I was surprised to see one of these apocalyptic predictions come from a Charlestown resident, Bruce Losty whose home off of East Beach is appraised at $558,000. That's just slightly more than half the threshhold for the Taylor Swift tax which wouldn't apply to Losty anyway since he's a resident.

He wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Providence Journal on March 26 expressing outrage at the Raimondo proposal and predicts that while the measure starts at the million-dollar mark, it will only be a matter of time before that threshold is lowered on non-resident owned properties.
To which I have to ask – so what?

Losty cites the CCA Party’s line in his ProJo letter, namely that the nice rich people who have made our coastal properties so expensive cover 50% of our tax base even though they don’t have the right to vote and don’t have children in our public schools. Again, I have to ask – so what?

Nobody put a gun to their head and made them come here and buy fantastic homes at bargain prices. We all have to pay taxes and, generally, we expect those taxes to fairly reflect our ability to pay.

Food Blues

It's bad news when a popular eating spot lets down its standards and gets dinged for health and safety violations (click here for our series on Health Department inspections). But it's also pretty bad when the owners get caught for gross dishonesty.

Take for example, the Rhode Island-based Cilantro Mexican Grill. They've grown like crazy to seven restaurants across the state, though none in South County. Perhaps part of the secret to their financial success is not paying their workers properly. This past week, they worked a deal with the US Labor Department to pay more than $100,000 for violating child labor and wage & hour law. They cheated 32 workers and each worker will get an average of $1,500 in back wages. 

Cilantro's is in "good" company. Our own state Representative Flip Filippi's business on Block Island, Ballard's Inn, was nailed by the feds for cheating workers and was dinged by the feds for a quarter million in back wages and penalties.

And the famous Mystic Pizza...what a disappointment! Owner John Zepelos of North Stonington pleaded guilty to tax cheating. He skimmed and hid more than half a million dollars - which he is forfeiting. He must pay back taxes and penalities of around a quarter million.

He then comes up for sentencing on June 23rd where he faces up to 15 years in prison and another half a million in fines. 

Chariho rates high despite School Committee weirdness

Apparently the teachers and students at Chariho Regional School are better at staying focused than the so-called adults on the Chariho School Committee. While the committee members hold one dysfunctional meeting after another, Chariho itself just takes care of business, most recently coming in at #9 among all of the high schools in Rhode Island.

This is according to a new survey that evaluated 15,000 high schools nationwide.

You wouldn’t know it if all you saw was the School Committee. The Committee is split between one faction that is convinced Chariho is totally messed up and another that thinks School Superintendent Barry Ricci walks on water.

The Anti Faction, comprised of Georgia Ure and George Abbott of Hopkinton and Keven Miller of Richmond, are using every trick in the book to find ways to discredit Ricci, including going around the terms of the union contract and contacting teachers and ex-teachers directly. They have drawn fire especially from Charlestown’s rep Donna Chambers.

Chambers also criticized the Anti Faction’s common practice of abstaining on votes, claiming that they are required to give a reason when they abstain. Actually, Chambers’ (as is often the case) is wrong on the law – you are only required to provide a reason if you recuse yourself. Abstaining means you simply don’t cast a vote, something that former Charlestown Town Councilor Lisa DiBello did frequently.

Recusal means taking no part in a particular matter, including voting on it, usually due to a possible conflict of interest. But given Chambers’ somewhat casual understanding of the state’s Ethics Law, her confusion is understandable.

South County needs new health care push

According to a new survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the healthiest place to be in Rhode Island is Bristol County, trailed by Newport County. South County was ranked in the middle of the pack, better than Kent and Providence Counties, but worse than Newport and Bristol Counties. Click here for the full report.

The RI Health Department is launching a new four-year program to try to boost “health equity” by trying to ensure that everyone has access to quality health care. 

No, this is not RhodeMap RI, the Statewide Planning Initiative that has the right-wing tin foil hat crowd going nuts. And no, don't you dare - I mean you, CCA, Flip Filippi, Elaine Morgan, et al. - don't try to work some new conspiracy theory out of this.

It’s an initiative funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and will be run through local agencies. Washington County will receive $260,000 for its “equity zone.” Local partners include our hospitals, school districts and non-profit providers such as the WARM Center, Wood River Health Services and the Johnnycake Center.

What ever happened to Grady Miller?

A couple of years ago, South County went through a period where almost every town executive was in trouble. Charlestown forced out Bill DiLibero. Narragansett forced out Grady Miller.

Both were highly praised by their respective town councils until they were not and then were given the shove. Bill has gone on to a much happier position as a town manager in South Padre Island, Texas. And Grady Miller just appeared on my radar with this item:

A little bit later, Westerly pushed Steve Hartford out the door, perhaps as a result of the scandal that has since been revealed by great reporting by Dale Faulkner in the Westerly Sun. Click here for a great sample.

Hartford was picked up by the Lincoln Chafee administration, only to be dropped once Gina Raimondo was sworn in. There was short mention of him in the ProJo where it was noted that he was paid $992 in severance pay for unused vacation time.

More Job Openings

Here are some interesting job prospects from RI Community Jobs (click here to sign up for daily e-mail postings), our various local Patches and miscellaneous sources. These are new ones that I spotted since I posted a large batch HERE.

URI Foundation seeks a Director of Principal Gifts to work at the main campus. Click here for more information.

YMCA of Greater Providence seeks a Health and Wellness Coach to work at the Y in Peacedale. Click here for more information.

The Frosty Drew Observatory in Ninigret Park is looking for a volunteer Event Organizer-Fundraiser. Click here to apply.

Mystic Arts Center - Mystic, CT is recruiting a new Executive Director and also an Events Coordinator.