Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Charlestown goes into full cover-up mode on shady land deal

Town refuses to release new appraisal on Sachem Passage Association property deal

By Will Collette

I suppose it was bound to come to this. 

The response I received from Town Clerk Amy Weinreich late Friday to my on-going request for records on the proposed sale to the town of property owned by CCA client group, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA) was probably the most obvious example of a cover-up I've seen  in this town for a long while.

For obvious reasons, I have taken to calling this latest dark foray SPA-Gate.

As you may recall, failed town moderator candidate Ron Areglado, on behalf of SPA, offered to sell a small parcel of land on Foster Cove, attaching an appraisal that pegged the value of the property at $426,000.

That appraisal was ridiculous, based on what the appraiser himself called “extraordinary assumptions,” the biggest one being that a house could be built on that land despite numerous legal restrictions that make construction impossible. 

Based on real-world conditions, Town Tax Assessor Ken Swain said the town’s tax assessment for the property of $61,900 was an accurate reflection of the land’s worth, not $426,000.

So in September, the town hired the Newport Appraisal Group to do a new, more reality-based appraisal. We paid $750 and the appraiser predicted a 3-week turnaround.

That was September 22. Three weeks passed, then Election Day, then Thanksgiving. I kept asking for any records discussing what was going on with the appraisal but the town revealed nothing.

Then late last Friday, I finally received a response. The appraisal was delivered to the town on December 11 and was being circulated among some select parties within the town. 

Except the "complete report" (the appraisal) has not been
released. According to Town Clerk Amy Weinreich,
the appraisal is "exempt from disclosure in their entirety,
in accordance with R.I.G.L. §§ 38-2-2(4)(N)."
Except I can’t see it. I also can’t see the report Town Planner Jane Weidman submitted to Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz. 

The Town is now claiming these documents are exempt even though they sent me the initial SPA appraisal. The town says I cannot see the one that the Town paid for.

Also, I can see the headings for several e-mails regarding this appraisal but the entire contents are blacked out. Examples above.

Apparently, town staff have learned that if they send a “cc” to a town elected official such as a Council member or Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, that document becomes automatically exempt under an arcane section of the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

But, as I was told in my last conversation with the Attorney General's office about Charlestown's public records policy, "just because a record CAN be withheld doesn't mean it SHOULD be withheld," especially when there is a compelling public interest.

In the case of SPA-Gate, there are many reasons why there is a compelling public interest.  Some of those concerns, such as whether the deal includes the dirt driveway so people can actually gain access to the land, might be answered in the new documents the Town refuses to disclose. 

But the biggest question hidden in the secret documents is what is the value in of the land based on the new appraisal? I can't recall the last time the town tried to hide an appraisal when taxpayer money was involved.

I have taken the required initial step of appealing this denial of public records to Town Administrator Stankiewicz – even though I believe he approved of, if not directed, this draconian refusal to release public documents.

After his denial, unless the Town Council intervenes, the issue goes to Attorney General Peter Neronha.

The last time I had to deal with such a broad refusal to release records was my first request to the town for copies of the bills from our recently dismissed Indian Affairs lawyer Joe Larisa. Thanks to help from the AG’s office, the Town released Larisa's bills unredacted. That's how we learned how much we were paying Larisa for so little. CLICK HERE for details.

I suggest Charlestown taxpayers ask this: What are they hiding? And under whose direction?