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Monday, January 11, 2021

Attorney General's office urges Charlestown to look at open records law as "a floor, not a ceiling"

Public business should be conducted publicly... except in Charlestown

By Will Collette

This e-mail was blacked out even though the author, Council President
Deb Carney, did not want it to be blacked out.
Ever since the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) took control of Charlestown town government a decade ago, the public's right to know no longer exists as a practical matter.

You only get what you are willing to fight to get. I know that from personal experience in my research and writing for Progressive Charlestown starting in January 2011, ten years ago.

The CCA Party hired Mark Stankiewicz as Town Administrator. He plays the CCA's centurion guarding town records from any interloper and only revealing what he absolutely must.

Currently, the fight is to shine a bright light on a shady land deal involving the CCA's close ally, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA), that wants to sell the Town a small parcel of land the Town doesn't need and SPA doesn't want. 

But friends are friends and the CCA Party has perfected the practice of "pay to play." I call this deal SPA-Gate.

I have been trying to get full disclosure of important records such as the town-commissioned appraisal, reports on the land deal by town staff and e-mail exchanges about the deal. 

Using a provision in the state Access to Public Records Act, Town Clerk Amy Weinreich has been increasingly rejecting requests, sometimes denying records in their entirety but more often supplying records such as e-mails totally blacked out like the one above.

I filed a formal complaint with the state Attorney General's Open Government Unit over the Town's efforts to cover up what's going on behind the scenes with SPA-Gate. I acknowledged that, technically, the Town can withhold some records, but the more important question was should they.

NOTE: After I filed my complaint, the new SPA-Gate appraisal has been put on-line because it is on the Council's January agenda. You can see the bottom line appraisal value of $75,000 in this article.

Open Records Unit Chief Kate Sadeck responded quickly. She noted that under the state open records law, the AG's office cannot compel Charlestown to release records they have authority under the APRA to deny, as I conceded in my complaint.

But she added this:

This Office frequently encourages public bodies to treat the APRA as a floor not a ceiling and to consider not only whether a record can legally be withheld, but also whether it should be withheld.  

That, in a nutshell, is exactly what my complaint is about so I find Ms. Sadeck's comments to be right on the mark. But will Charlestown heed this advice?

Probably not, and here's why.

Culture of Secrecy

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance relishes secrecy. It does not allow people to become members. It does not allow people to go to its meetings. It doesn't tell you when those meetings are held except "at least once a month." You can't see its minutes, if they even exist. 

The only records you can see are those the CCA Party is legally required to file with the state Board of Elections. They are not incorporated or listed on the Secretary of State's database. They have not registered as lobbyists.

The CCA Party is governed by a self-selected Steering Committee. We're not sure who is on that Steering Committee since the list is rarely updated. The current list is dated 2019.

The CCA party dropped any reference to open and transparent government from their platform.

I have long imagined CCA meetings in a secret club house hidden away in our thousands of acres of woods. 

It is at these meetings that marching orders are issued to the CCA-endorsed officials who control the Planning Commission and Town Council, as well as the Zoning Board, most town boards and commissions, and the Town Administrator. 

But you have no right to pull away the curtain to see how Charlestown sausage is really made.

Now that Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz has gotten comfortable with wholesale document black-outs, expect to see even more town e-mails, regardless of topic, include an elected official in the CC line to make that e-mail exempt from disclosure under the loophole in the state open records law.

The Queen of Secrecy in Charlestown is Planning Commissar Ruth Platner. Though she is at the heart of just about every land use matter - including and especially SPA-Gate - curiously, there are no e-mails sent by her included in the Town's APRA responses.

We know that she receives e-mails, especially from Town Planner Jane Weidman, because they are sent to me in the form you can see to the right👉.

Platner, like just about every other elected town official, has an official town e-mail address:

That address should be used for official business. Under Stankiewicz's secrecy practices, her e-mails should be listed and shown on APRA responses, though the contents will be blacked out.

Under the law, the Town is not required to disclose records that do not exist. That's logical. I presume Town Clerk Amy Weinreich follows the law very strictly, so the absence of e-mails from Ruthie means Amy doesn't have them and can't get them.

So how does Ruthie do business without being on the Town's e-mail net?

Some possibilities include using a private e-mail address or communicating only by phone or in person, creating no record. 

Or maybe she has a secret letter drop out in the woods where she leaves and receives messages from under a toadstool.