Addressing Commentary on the Political Climate in Charlestown

The following letter appeared in the Westerly Sun and is shared with us here by the authors Tom Gentz and George Tremblay. Mr. Tremblay is Vice President of the Charlestown Town Council and Tom Gentz is President of the Town Council.

We welcome the opportunity to address commentary on the political climate in Charlestown. Recent articles express disappointment that the Town Council would not debate issues raised at a public hearing (news story, “Ninigret Park bond question focus of hearing,” Westerly Sun, May 5; and editorial, “One-party rule stifles discourse in Charlestown,” Westerly Sun, May 10).

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance political action committee that swept all 13 elective offices last November was formed in 2008 to put an end to the locker-room conduct that characterized public meetings. That history gives pause to inviting unbridled public discourse.

A public hearing generally draws fewer than 1 percent of active voters, and these are the most invested political operatives in town affairs, jockeying for pole position in the next race. The question arises on just how to go about maintaining civility while offering open microphones to one and all.

Professional guidance advised that we allow free rein to the public, but avoid rancorous exchanges by not responding to criticism. Even though the room is a tinderbox of the most politically active people in town, in hindsight we agree we should have risked the turmoil for a more public engagement.

On the Ninigret bond item, we thought it inappropriate to discuss a citizens’ initiative over which we had no input. Accordingly, the council president invited authors of the citizens’ initiative to speak on the issue, but none volunteered. It has been seven years since the Ninigret Master Plan was approved. The Town Council is no less disappointed than its critics at repeated but failed attempts to bring together opposing sides on how to proceed with implementation. We did indeed fight and win World War II in five years, but there was a will to win the war that is woefully lacking in negotiations to implement the Master Plan.

Advocates must engage town government to review the original Master Plan, more recent changes proposed by Parks and Recreation, and a well-reasoned schedule of priorities supported by a sound, well thought out budget for specific aims. Only then can we put a rational proposal before the voters for approval.

Criticism for not expecting the same degree of detail for the open-space bond as expected of the Ninigret bond is a red herring. The Ninigret bond if approved, will be spent to begin a multi-faceted long-range construction project. What gets built first, and why, can only be determined through long-range planning. A million dollars is a lot to award for a plan that has no set of priorities. In contrast, the open-space bond will be used to acquire properties that meet a list of established criteria for eligibility, as market opportunities arise. Conditions for these two bond initiatives are as different as a trip to the casino and a lesson on the principles of financial planning.

In closing, we do not agree that the democratic process is lacking in Charlestown, but the absence of minority representation does compromise the political process. The fault lies squarely with a political opposition that failed to build a credible platform, and failed to recruit candidates to sell its ideas. The solution is theirs to devise. Let’s hope it is more imaginative than a barrage of hostile invective aimed at elected officials.

Tom Gentz
Tom Gentz
George C. Tremblay
George Tremblay