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Thursday, April 7, 2022

Charlestown needs a “Bad Actor” ordinance

Why do we do business with criminals?

By Will Collette

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) puts a lot of effort into keeping undesirable projects from happening, often through its permitting power in zoning and the Planning Commission. “Undesirable” is anything that CCA leader and town Planning Commissar Ruth Platner doesn’t like.

They will fight to the death to block projects, at minimum by using the clock to frustrate owners by making the process go ever so slow. They will also nitpick projects ad nauseam, demanding design changes for things such as the color of electrical outlet covers, the number of gables in a roof, shrubbery, etc. But they are also prepared to spend tons of town money going to court.

Some projects killed in this fashion deserve to be killed. Others, not so much. But it has surprised me that the CCA has not availed itself of one tool that could be more useful than all the others: a comprehensive Bad Actor ordinance and policy.

Charlestown does a lot of business with a lot of people and companies. In my opinion, the town should have a bad actor policy that applies to the issuance of permits and licenses, construction and consultant contracts, and the purchase of goods and services.

Blocking “bad actors” requires you to first identify what warrants that title. The town has considerable latitude to decide a bad actor is any owner or business that has a history of such offenses as:

Corporate crime: fraud, bid-rigging, bribery, racketeering, money laundering, extortion, tax evasion, campaign finance violations, etc.

Environmental crime: EPA, state or municipal violations, Superfund sites; abandoned mines; unremediated RCRA sites, clean air or water violations, illegal dumping, etc.

Worker violations: violations of OSHA, MSHA and state labor health and safety laws; wage theft; wage and hour violations; unfair labor practices, etc.

Performance issues: failure to meet schedules, stay on budget, poor quality work, excessive change orders, use of substandard materials, mechanics’ liens, license revocations and suspensions or failure to carry proper licenses, etc.

Financial responsibility: does the business or individual have the financial stability to meet its obligations and comply with town rules? Evidence that it doesn’t includes federal, state and local tax delinquency; a history of bankruptcies; tax liens; excessive debt; inability to bond their work or the use of a fraudulent bond issuer, etc.

False statements. Making false statements or declarations when applying for any permit, license or contract.

The town has a lot of latitude to pick, choose or add characteristics of what to include in a Charlestown policy. The courts generally defer to local judgment so long as decisions are made consistently and fairly, not arbitrarily and capriciously, and there is no corrupt purpose.

Typically, a town would have individuals and businesses who are covered under the bad actor policy fill out a form responding to each question and category that applies to them under pain and penalty of perjury. Self-reporting is fine, provided there is a provision that allows Charlestown to act when any false statements are discovered.

Verifying (or refuting) a bad actor form used to be a difficult, time-consuming task, but not so much anymore. Lots of state and federal agencies have public databases. The states of Connecticut and Massachusetts both have searchable databases on construction contractors that list companies that have cleared their screening process and are eligible to do public construction work. Sometimes a simple Google search is all you need.

Outside sources can also be helpful. There are a number of databases maintained by non-profits to track corporate crime. My favorite is the one run by Good Jobs First (CLICK HERE). Whistleblowers and competitors can also be good sources, though you then have to verify what they tell you.

A Connecticut contractor was almost given a construction contract at Chariho, but lost the contract after I notified the school board that this contractor was barred from doing public school construction in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Bad actors like the Copar Quarries that plagued Westerly and Charlestown residents could have been blocked if there had been a bad actor policy in place. The level of detail that Dale Faulkner wrote for the Sun and that I published in Progressive Charlestown screamed out for action against them. The first bullet point was the federal jail time their owner did for racketeering.

But not only were Charlestown’s elected officials completely ineffective against Copar:

In 2014, they allowed Copar to take over the Morrone sand pit on Route 91. Even though they had the large amount of research on Copar AND Copar was months late even applying for a permit, Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz was too timid to stop them and ordered the permit be issued.

The CCA-controlled Town Council refused to take any enforcement action, and against the advice of the Town Solicitor, refused to exercise the town’s police power, instead asking the General Assembly to grant permission to enforce town rules on quarries. CCA lover boy Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi tried repeatedly to get that through the General Assembly. He failed each time.

Guess what? Contrary to the rule that doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, the CCA once again had the Flipper introduce that same legislation this year.

And there’s more! Copar abandoned its local quarries when the shady executives ran the company into bankruptcy. A new company owned by Thomas Miozzi bought the site, pretending it remained continually operational – though MSHA records show otherwise. The town is now in litigation with Miozzi

All of this could have been avoided if Town poohbah Mark Stankiewicz had listened in 2014 when I provided material to him showing that Miozzi was not a responsible contractor. Stankiewicz disregarded that warning and awarded Miozzi with a construction contract. And now we seem stuck with him.

The town spent a lot of time and money trying to keep the Dollar Store from opening up on Old Post Road. The only reason they could find was the dubious claim that the Dollar Store is a "department store." Charlestown got laughed out of court.

On July 31, 2017, RI Superior Court Judge Bennett Gallo ruled against the town and the ZBR, calling the town decision to classify the Dollar store as a “department store” as “clearly erroneous” and that it “amounted to an abuse of discretion.”

We were headed back to court except Dollar Store decided Charlestown was not worth the trouble and expense. But this could have ended a lot cheaper, cleaner and quicker if we had a bad actor policy that included workplace violations. In earlier articles, I noted that Dollar Store owner Dollar General as a huge rap sheet already. CLICK HERE. The Connecticut AFL-CIO just exposed new unfair labor practices by them.

The main point of a Bad Actor law is to protect taxpayers from corporate criminals and corrupt business owners. Charlestown has never been bashful about imposing restrictions on businesses by regulating lighting, shrubbery, driveway material, roof gambles, electrical fixture covers, parking lot bumpers, trees, and more.

Why would anyone think it’s unreasonable to say that if you want to do business with or in the town of Charlestown, you should not have a history of breaking the law?