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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Something Stanks in Charlestown

Town Council meeting swirls around Town Administrator

By Will Collette

Beware any interloper threatening Charlestown.
Mark "The Punisher" Stankiewicz is on the job
Charlestown’s form of government vests the Town Council with nearly all power while granting very little to the Town Administrator, called a “town manager” in most towns. That power balance just changed radically on August 10. Read on.

When current Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz was hired on February 12, 2013 after his predecessor Bill DiLibero was fired largely for resisting the Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s (CCA) erratic decisions on Ninigret Park, Stankiewicz was expected to usher in a new era of calm.

Stankiewicz left his position as Plymouth, MA’s Town Manager to become Administrator in Charlestown. Before Plymouth, Stankiewicz was terminated – to his credit - by the Stoughton MA Town Council for firing corrupt cops and testifying against government corruption.

I used to meet with him for coffee and shoot the shit. He was obviously scoping me out, and I was doing the same on him. He seemed like a pretty straight guy but our association tapered off after he told me unequivocally that he saw himself working for whoever controlled the town, and that was the CCA. I figured that after Stoughton and Plymouth, he had decided to just get along and roll into retirement.

Stankiewicz bought this home in Stoughton, MA two years after
he was hired as Charlestown Town Administrator
Stankiewicz has never actually committed to Charlestown other than to negotiate a high salary ($128,845) and perks. In 2015, two years after his hiring, he moved, but not to Charlestown. 

Instead, he bought a new house in, of all places, Stoughton (👉). Not only was Stoughton the town that booted him out for doing his duty, it’s also a brutal 70+ mile one-way commute. But hey, he negotiated a $10,020 “travel stipend” from Charlestown.

Since his hiring, Stankiewicz has been a good and faithful servant of the CCA.

For their benefit, he has clamped down on the release of public information (👇) and went along with the CCA’s “pay to play” policy. If you want to get something from town government, you have to pay. An example: having to make “suggested” donations to CCA-favored organizations in return for permits.

This is how Stankiewicz typically responds to open records requests
At the August 10 Charlestown Town Council meeting, it seemed like every agenda item led to a discussion about Stankiewicz.

For example, the CCA Council majority tried to expunge Council President Deb Carney's negative evaluation of Stankiewicz from the April 12 Council minutes and only include positive things about Stankiewicz.

Carney had read her evaluation of Stankiewicz into the record to ensure it actually made it into the minutes. The full text of Deb’s evaluation of Stankiewicz appears at the end of this article.

CCA signal-caller Bonnie Van Slyke (CCA-Arnolda) pushed for a vote to expunge Carney’s critique of Stankiewicz but instead, Deb moved that the Council ask state Attorney General Peter Neronha for an opinion on whether it was legal under Rhode Island’s open government laws to censor the public records of an open meeting. That motion passed 4 to 1.

So-called independent CCA rookie members Cody Clarkin and Susan Cooper voted to ask for the AG’s opinion, but I predict they will seek to change their votes and offer a motion to reconsider. They have done this before when they failed to follow the CCA party line.

However, the CCA majority then defeated by 2 to 3 a motion by Carney to get a legal opinion on the CCA’s practice of using their majority to block agenda items from minority members if they didn’t conform to the CCA’s self-interest.

To be clear, ever since the CCA seized control of Charlestown over a decade ago, the results of Council meetings are pre-determined at the CCA’s secret meetings. YOU can’t attend those meetings. You can’t even find out where or when they are held. But those meetings are where ALL Charlestown decisions get made.

The mystery train

CLICK HERE for the original. This is apparently what has triggered the CCA into sounding the alarm. Note that the green line is the EXISTING track, NOT a proposed new track.

Next, the Council tried to grab at the nebulous issue that somehow AMTRAK might revive the Old Saybrook-Kenyon bypass that was resoundingly defeated in 2017. The bypass was a bad plan that would have cut a swath through northern Charlestown for tracks for high-speed rail. 

It was an easy win since Donald Trump didn’t care about trains unless they were powered by coal and Congress gave the project no funding. So in 2017, the Old Saybrook-Kenyon bypass was officially dropped in a legally binding Record of Decision. No matter what the CCA says, there is no evidence that it has been revived.

As I wrote HERE, those fears have been stoked by CCA leader and town Planning Commissar Ruth Platner who apparently misread a couple of blog postings from a Connecticut website and proclaimed – without evidence – that “THEY’RE BACK,” arisen from the dead.

I understand local residents being defensive about their property and nervous and upset about even the slightest hint that someone might take it away from them.

But Platner has them stirred up for no reason, perhaps to compensate for FAILING to pay attention to the bypass issue when it first arose in 2016. Only after Connecticut resistance had mustered did Charlestown finally engage in that winning fight.

Council President Deb Carney tried to allay public fear by reporting that she had personally talked to William Flynn, AMTRAK’s CEO, about the bypass. She said Flynn told her the most likely new route for a high-speed rail connection from New Haven to Providence would be along the I-95 corridor.

Nonetheless, the CCA is now claiming that the recently published ConnectNEC 2035 to improve rail service throughout the northeast corridor by 2035 somehow threatens Charlestown.

Part of the plan is a proposed “New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study. Study of investment options to improve capacity and service performance between New Haven, CT and Providence, RI.”

All transportation agencies regularly and often study capacity and ways to improve it. They would be deservedly lambasted if they failed to do so.

But in the CCA’s endless, paranoid quest for villains, this reference was all they needed to conclude “[t]hrough this study the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass was put back on the table.” 

These are the CCA’s words, not AMTRAK, not the Federal Rail Administration, not the Northeast Corridor Commission. The CCA has no evidence that the dead and buried bypass has come back to life.

At the Council meeting, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner gave a long and largely incoherent speech to try to stir up more fear and called for re-mobilizing “the coalition” that defeated the bypass in 2017. She did not explain how you reassemble a coalition when there is no evidence of an actual threat, but Bonnie Van Slyke had some ideas.

Several residents whose homes and properties were in the path of the defeated bypass proposal spoke passionately and angrily about this supposed new threat. They wanted a total mobilization of money, people and resources to fight a threat that may not actually exist.

What we need is a Dictator?

This is Bonnie Van Slyke's original resolution which she wanted to fold into Deb Carney's broader motion. I'm not sure the content was improved by Van Slyke giving it "further thought."

Councilor Bonne Van Slyke (CCA-Arnolda) pre-filed an extraordinary proposal (👆) to give Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz absolute power to "take whatever action" needed to “protect the town.

There is no definition or limit to Stankiewicz’s powers. Could he declare martial law? Could he set up road blocks or booby traps? Could he impose censorship? Could he order the arrest of anyone (like me) who thinks this "threat" is not real? Could he suspend all town bodies and rule by fiat? Could he cut off the internet? Could he direct DPW to blow up track? Could he draft residents into an armed militia (actually, state law prohibits that, expressly forbidding towns from raising, arming or funding their own militias)? 

There was a long debate over a resolution by Council President Carney that started out with directing Stankiewicz to write some letters to seek information and re-affirm Charlestown’s opposition to the dead bypass. As a result of that debate, a number of amendments were Christmas-treed to Deb’s resolution.

Among them was some yet-to-be-seen version of Van Slyke’s motion to give Stankiewicz dictatorial powers. Also added (I think) were motions acknowledging that this “fight” would take a lot of staff time, town taxpayer money, travel and meetings to thwart this threat, whether or not it actually exists.

Stankiewicz wants to hire consultants and told the Council members that they had to free up a lot of their time to go to meetings, implicitly saying that he wasn’t going to do it. I wonder if this directive to the Council was Stankiewicz's first use of his newly granted dictatorial powers?

We will spare no cost and endure any sacrifice to defeat this threat, whatever it is. Except don’t expect Stankiewicz to put in any extra time.

Somehow the Christmas-tree resolution got passed unanimously. We’ll have to wait a while to see exactly what the resolution says and how it will ultimately be recorded in the minutes.

Quite amazing.

Nothing’s too good for Stankiewicz

This jumbled series of decisions teed up the final drama of the evening over the seemingly mundane question of setting the time for future agenda planning meetings.

CCA rookie Cody Clarkin introduced the agenda item to move the meeting start time to 3 PM from its usual 6 PM, which is fine for him since he doesn’t have a day job.

Van Slyke strenuously pushed the issue admitting it is for the convenience of Mark Stankiewicz who is just spending too many evenings in Charlestown when he could be home stoking the barbie in Stoughton.

Deb Carney even more strenuously objected, noting that as the manager of a small retail business, she’d have to close the store three hours early, losing needed income. This for the convenience of our highly paid Town Administrator who, by the way, also receives a handsome travel allowance to compensate him for his commutes to and from Stoughton.

It was an ugly fight. As I watched and listened, I wondered to myself what would have happened if Bill DiLibero had tried this shit.

Ultimately, Deb and Grace Klinger (who also has a retail job and would lose income) lost the vote to the CCA majority, who voted to change the time to 4:30 instead of 3:00.  How generous.  Now Deb only has to close 1 1/2 hours early.

Maybe the Council should compensate Deb and Grace for lost income – they can take it out of Stankiewicz’s travel allowance.

Just for your information, Bonnie Van Slyke is the senior CCA member on the Town Council. The other two are serving their first terms. One is former Eagle Scout Cody Clarkin and the other is recent transplant Susan Cooper. Both promised in the campaign to be independent and beholden only to the people of Charlestown and not just the CCA.

Both of them, especially Clarkin, have been total stooges for the CCA, even reversing their votes at later meetings when they mistakenly failed to vote the CCA line. Watch for them to try to reverse their votes on the motion to get an Attorney General’s opinion before sanitizing the meeting minutes.

Finally, please read on to see the full text of Council President Deb Carney's evaluation of Stankiewicz.

This is what the CCA doesn’t want you to see

Mark Stankiewicz - Town Administrator Yearly Review Submitted by Deborah Carney, Town Council President April 12, 2021

I am basing my review of the Town Administrator, Mark Stankiewicz on the last 13 months of his employment. It has been a little over a year since the start of the pandemic and the declaration of the state of emergency in which the Council granted emergency powers to the Town Administrator and/or the EMA Director.

Town government as we knew it changed and overall, Mr. Stankiewicz did a good job adapting to the new challenges facing the Town.

I have not agreed with all the decisions he has made with regards to the pandemic and I have expressed my concerns over the past year. One of which was the lack of current information being relayed to Charlestown’s residents. However, I recognize the amount of time he has committed to dealing with the demands of the pandemic and the decisions he has made.

Having said that, I have some concerns with some of Mark’s actions over the past 4 months. Specifically, his refusal to release documents to me, his lack of response on various items, and the lack of transparency.

First- The lack of response and refusal to provide requested information.

Three months ago I requested the schedule maintained by the Treasurer that provides the support for the Town’s Severance Liability. The severance liability is money the Town owes to our staff and we are responsible for.

Town Councilors have a duty to do our due diligence and the Town Administrator has the responsibility to provide the information. Initially, Mr. Stankiewicz refused to provide me with this documentation. I noted that he did not have the authority to with-hold this.

It took 10 days for Mr. Stankiewicz to respond. At that time he sent a document that was not what I had requested. Again, I requested the information. This time I was told that the calculations are made every two weeks, there’s no written schedule and therefore he could not comply with my request. This is disturbing and obviously the document had to exist in order for the Auditor to make their calculations.

Subsequent to his insistence the document did not exist, at a meeting arranged by Mr. Stankiewicz with the Auditor and the Treasurer, the Auditor confirmed that she was given a document with actual numbers effective at the end of the fiscal year. I was eventually sent another document. Still not the requested one.

It is not acceptable that as an elected member of the Town Council I have to continually press to get requested information, especially when it is an issue related to the Town’s budget or Audit. Nor is it acceptable for the Town Administrator to refuse to release the information, which is public. I realize I am not in the majority on the Council, but it is required that we all be treated equally.

Additionally, I was told this information contained personal information therefore I was not allowed to see it. Subsequent to that, a rumor began at Town Hall that I was trying to look into the Personal Files of Town Staff, which was not true. I’m not sure who started this rumor or why, but in an effort to eliminate concerns, I told the Town Administrator to redact the names.

This is the document I was given. This is not the document that was given to the auditor as I requested, as this document was prepared by the auditor. Incidentally, as per the Attorney General’s Office, this information is public in its unredacted form. An elected official should not have to make a request under the Access to Public Records Act in order to receive information.

If I’m not getting the information, then it’s likely members of the public aren’t getting it either.

Second- Lack of transparency-

In December of last year, a redacted email was given to a member of the public in response to an Access to Public Records Act request. The email in question was sent from the Town Administrator to me. The email was routine in nature and contained no confidential information. There were two invoices attached to this email which were released in their entirety. I authorized the release of the email.

The Town Administrator refused to release the unredacted version of the email. This is not acceptable. This is not open and transparent government. By this refusal, Mr. Stankiewicz is in violation of the motion the Town Council unanimously approved last year regarding a Town Councilor’s authority to grant the release of communications.

The Council will address this on a future agenda. I have spoken with Mr. Stankiewicz regarding these issues and a few others. I have concerns with his actions over the past few months and I am hoping things will improve going forward.

To that end I am setting the following goals for him for the upcoming year.

1) Provide requested documents. Stop withholding information from elected Town Councilors. The Town Administrator does not have the authority to do this. It needs to end.

2) Improve transparency- when an elected official authorizes the release of documents to the public that are only exempt from disclosure because they are addressed to that elected official, those documents need to be released.

3) Improve Communication and Responsiveness - Provide more timely responses to requests. Waiting more than 10 days, or 30 days, or 3 months is not acceptable.

As I stated at the beginning, Mr. Stankiewcz has done a good job with managing the issues surrounding the Town and the pandemic. It is my intention that he takes this as constructive criticism so he can improve on these items and we can move forward for a more cohesive working relationship and with more transparency and consideration for the people of Charlestown.