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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

This week is Sunshine week

It’s a celebration of open and transparent government, and a free press

By Will Collette

This is Charlestown's idea of open government
The values many of us celebrate during Sunshine Week – free press and open government – are not to be taken for granted. 

Though they are the essence of a free and democratic society, it is a constant struggle to prevent the cloak of darkness and secrecy from falling over us.

Even in a small town like Charlestown, town leaders fight constantly to keep public business secret and to thwart prying eyes.

Charlestown has been ruled for the past decade by a shadowy political action committee called the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party). 

They meet in secret, allow no one to join, publish no public agenda or minutes and yet they make all the decisions for Charlestown. Sunshine is the LAST thing the CCA wants.

In 2013, they hired Mark Stankiewicz, a Stoughton MA resident, as town administrator and they keep him because he follows orders. 

Early on in his tenure, Stankiewicz told me that he fully understands he works for the CCA as long as they hold power in Charlestown.

That has put us at odds because, in the past year, I have been working to uncover the inner deal-making by the CCA Party. 

Like most political writers, I make full use of the state’s open records law, the Access to Public Records Act, in a quest to get documents and evidence on shady deals out into the public eye.

It has been Stankiewicz’s mission, at the behest of the CCA Party, to keep as much hidden as possible. He has the benefit of several loopholes that state legislators imbedded in the APRA to make public disclosure of potentially embarrassing documents difficult if not impossible.

The public’s right to know is not absolute – there are some government records you do not – and should not – have the right to see, such as employee records, on-going investigations, proprietary business information, security information and the like.

But neither are these exemptions absolute. As the Chief of the Attorney General's Open Government Unit Kathy Sadeck told me, “Just because you CAN withhold a record doesn’t mean you SHOULD withhold that record, especially if it’s in the public interest.”

One of the most abused exemptions under the APRA is the one that allows ANY communication that is by or to an “elected official” in their official capacity to be deemed exempt from public disclosure.

Under Stankiewicz’s interpretation of this exemption, ALL e-mails that show an elected official even in the “c.c.” line are considered exempt from disclosure. To make a town e-mail secret, all you have to do is list and send a copy to Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, any Council or Planning Commission member, even Charlie Beck, our elected Town Moderator.

Under this exemption, Stankiewicz prevented public access to dozens of e-mails related to the recently concluded “SPA-Gate” scandal where a CCA Party ally attempted to sell a small piece of land at a highly inflated price. The e-mails could have revealed who was involved in this deal and what was driving it. CLICK HERE for more detail.

Incidentally, Ruth Platner avoids the issue of whether her e-mails should become public by not using the town's official e-mail system. That way, I can't get to see what they're blacking out. As I've speculated before, maybe Ruthie only communicates verbally or by leaving clandestine messages in the forest.

Stankiewicz is Charlestown's Centurion of Secrecy
In today's e-mail, I received another example of ridiculous redaction, in this instance an e-mail from Town Administrator Stankiewicz to the Town Council.

It apparently interprets a federal court decision to dismiss civil rights charges brought by Narragansett leader Bella Noka against the town and the Charlestown Police Department.

See the e-mail in its entirety, as it was sent to me at Stankiewicz’s direction, above left.

Ironically, the actual decision IS a public record and you can read it HERE even though you CANNOT read Stankiewicz’s commentary on it. 

In my reading of federal District Judge Mary s, McElroy’s March 8 decision, Ms. Noka’s case against the Town was dismissed on procedural grounds. Judge McElroy noted “The facts relevant to deciding this Motion for Summary Judgement are largely undisputed.”

Nonetheless, I believe town residents have the right to see Stankiewicz’s spin on events but because his e-mail is addressed TO elected officials (the Town Council), he has blacked out all the content.

Ah yes, gotta love Sunshine Week.

In addition to the APRA covering public access to records, the state also has a pretty good Open Meetings Act.

Meetings must be open to the public, meeting notices and agendas must be properly posted and procedures to allow public participation must be in place and followed.

Charlestown has been coping with its obligations to comply with the open meetings law and the constraints caused by the pandemic through its use of virtual technology. One technology allows you to actually attend and participate on line.

Another technology allows you to look at past meetings and review documents that were discussed at those meetings.

Neither technology is especially easy or intuitive.

Logging on to a meeting about to commence or in progress is relatively easy – you can click on “Virtual meetings” on Charlestown’s home page to get access to coverage via Cisco WebEx, an app you need to download. There are some instruction in the left-hand column.

You can't get there from here

However, if you want to view a recent meeting (or even an old one) and read the documents discussed, that’s an entirely different and far more difficult process. Let’s look at how you find the link to video and content for the March 8 Town Council meeting.

NOTE: the Town doesn't post this content until about a week after the meeting takes place so you must wait before you can look.

There is nothing on the Town home page to start you off. You will probably click on “virtual meetings” a few times, but that’s a dead-end.

You might click on “Agenda and Minutes” under the “Government” tab, but that’s another dead end. You won’t find it under the “Town Council” either.

Even if you click on the March 8 Council meeting in the “Calendar of Meetings/Events,” you don’t get there. It’s not on the Town Clerk’s web page either.

I finally found my way in by using the search engine in the upper right of the Town’s home page, asking for “IQM2.” IQM2 is the name of the flawed program Charlestown has been using since 2015 to cover its duty under the Open Meetings Act.

I finally got to the IQM2 Meeting Calendar page. NOTE: There are NO instructions on how to use this program. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you probably won’t find it. If you don't have better than average computer skills, you won't find it either.

Click on the “Media” tab. Just trust me. This takes you to a page with a long alphabetical list of town bodies, and under each body, a long, long chronological list of meetings .

Click on Town Council meeting, March 8, regular meeting. And presto, you get the March 8 meeting with a tiny video screen to watch the proceedings and links to documents. NOTE: copied links from IQM2 often don't work. For example, this is the link I copied for the March 8 meeting but it goes no where. Try it and see.

I have been raising concerns about IQM2 with Mark Stankiewicz since February 2015 and most recently, throughout the SPA-Gate scandal.

Though I don’t feel a complaint under the Open Meetings Act is warranted against the Town for its WebEx access to live meetings, I think a formal OMA complaint regarding the ridiculous problems of access to past meetings through IQM2 is long past due.

I had suggested one simple initial fix – putting an IQM2 link on the Charlestown home page with some clear instructions – but no response from Stankiewicz and no action to fix this obvious problem.

I hope this issue comes up at next month’s Town Council meeting on April 12 when the Town Council conducts its formal evaluation of Stankiewicz’s performance. I suppose by the CCA Party’s “screw the public” standards, Stankiewicz will get high marks. But if you are a Charlestown citizens seeking to exercise your right to know, Stankiewicz has let you down.