Overlook saga continues

Mon, 12/06/2021 - 2:45pm

“I have trust issues,” First Warden André Boudreau told the Town Council on November 17. The council was discussing the proposed management agreement with the Block Island Land Trust for the Overlook property. The Town of New Shoreham is partnering with the Land Trust to buy land on the Great Salt Pond from the Overlook. Originally, the deal was explained to the citizens of New Shoreham at the Financial Town Meeting in May, 2021 as a group effort between the Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Block Island Conservancy, and the town.
The original purchase price was $10.5 million, split between the town for $4.5 million, the Land Trust for $4 million, and The Nature Conservancy and Block Island Conservancy splitting the remaining $2 million. The item was added to the warrant for the Financial Town Meeting just two weeks before the meeting. The voters of Block Island approved the purchase at the FTM, and appraisals were ordered which came back as lower than the purchase price. A new price was agreed upon by the Town Council and Land Trust, $8.5 million. After seeing the revised offer, Overlook owner Steve Filippi reached out to Land Trust Chair Barbara MacMullan and the two of them negotiated the price up to $8.745 million.
On November 17, MacMullan explained to the council that the town will receive fee ownership of the whole property, with the Land Trust recording an easement on the property. She also said that she hoped the Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy would pay their share of the $8.745 million purchase price, but that the Land Trust would cover it if they cannot.
The deal has operated in varying shades of gray from the beginning. According to Boudreau, in the days leading up to the Financial Town Meeting, he met with Second Warden Sven Risom, MacMullan, and Land Trust Treasurer Wendy Crawford at Risom’s business, North Light Fibers. After their discussion on the potential Overlook purchase, Risom made a phone call. As he relayed to the council on November 17, Boudreau asked who Risom was calling, to which Risom allegedly replied: “I had to call Claire, so she could tell Mark what’s going on and we can avoid a walking quorum.”

According to Rhode Island law, a quorum is a simple majority of a governmental body, unless otherwise defined. In the case of the New Shoreham Town Council, a quorum consists of three members. Under the Open Meetings Act, a quorum cannot meet outside of the public’s view, and cannot discuss committee business outside of the public view. In this case, two council members discussing the Overlook purchase with a third party (the Land Trust) is okay, but three council members would constitute a quorum and would not be allowed. A walking, or rolling, quorum is established when two members discuss committee business, and then directly contact a third member. By contacting an intermediary, allegedly “Claire” in this case, a rolling quorum would be avoided.
Boudreau asked Risom at the council meeting on November 17 if he remembered that conversation. Risom said he did not think Boudreau’s rendition of events was
“factually correct.” Council Member Mark Emmanuelle said he did not remember receiving a call, but said he “does his homework” and “might have had discussions” about the property with “allies.”
When reached for comment, Risom said he was “astounded with the conversation” at the council meeting, saying that he understood the rules and reasoning for the rolling quorum guidelines and that to go around them would be “preposterous.” He said he understood that some people are not in favor of the deal, but that the three to two vote at the council level probably reflects the people’s views. At the Financial Town Meeting, the voters of Block Island voted 115-81 in favor of the purchase.

Boudreau discussed some of his misgivings about the deal with The Block Island Times, describing a “lack of trust” between the town government and the Land Trust even though they are “partners on the purchase.” According to Boudreau, the Land Trust had an appraisal done on the property back in June of 2020, before approaching the town in January 2021. The Land Trust did not share its appraisal with the town, which is not uncommon. The Land Trust typically conducts most of its business in closed session and only reveals details at the conclusion of a deal.
The town had its own appraisal done, and the Land Trust had a second one done, and again would not share the results of the appraisal with the town until the town
shared its appraisal too. All the appraisals came in at about $2 million below the original purchase price.

Boudreau also alleges that the council unanimously agreed that since the appraisals were lower than the purchase price, the town and its taxpayers should realize the savings on their end. He says that the unanimous council vote was to cap the town’s contribution at $2.5 million, as presented in open session to the Land Trust. When the council finally made the vote official in October, after the negotiated lower price was accepted by all parties, the majority of the council voted to cap the town’s contribution at $3.6 million. “What changed when we were unanimous at $2.5 million?” Boudreau asked rhetorically.
There were hints of impropriety back in May, when Council Member Martha Ball questioned how three council members could have gotten together to jointly sign a letter sent to The Block Island Times so quickly after voting to include the Overlook purchase for the Financial Town Meeting. A letter to the editor arrived less than 18 hours after the April Town Council meeting, signed by representatives from the conservancy groups, Risom, Emmanuelle, and Councilor Keith Stover. The letter expressed support for the purchase. Ball’s questions suggest discussions outside of the official meeting times, and possible violations of the Open Meeting Act, although she stopped short of outright allegations.
“The fundamental question is, was this decided at the council level before it was brought to the council?” Boudreau told The Times.
When reached for comment, Stover said, “the concerning thing was the fact that it was four months after the town voted 60-40 in favor of acquisition, and we continue having the same arguments and complaining.” He also said the vote on the council “reflects where the townspeople are.” Stover went on to say that the episode illustrates “the way the council is or is not functioning and is or is not being led.” Stover called the whole thing “shameful and embarrassing.”

Boudreau says he has not filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, although it is not necessarily up to him, as anyone can file a complaint with the AG. He has spoken to the AG about training for the town on open government and the Open Meeting Act, to prevent these types of slip-ups in the future.
Boudreau also says the town’s attorney is working on new rules and procedures based on the changes made to the town charter and approved by the voters last year, changes meant to enhance transparency. Risom also said he was in favor of more training, saying he has “been pushing for training,” and hoped it would be done as soon as possible. Stover agreed that training is a “component” of good governance, but stressed that training will not generate civility or good governance
on its own. “Transparency and engagement is what yields good government,” he said. Stover went on to say, “We’re conducting the people’s business and we have to have a seriousness of purpose, and it’s been lacking.” He also said the meetings were not the place to “grandstand,” referring to Boudreau’s “unfounded allegations” and “personal attacks” as “unacceptable.”

For full transparency, Boudreau has not been on board with the purchase of the Overlook property from the beginning, and has consistently voted against it. He says he is not anti-conservation by any means, but just does not feel this is the best use of taxpayer funds at this time. “$3.6 million for a luxury item when our island workers are in a housing crisis and in the food pantry line?” he asked, shaking his head.
While Boudreau believes people voted for the purchase with “good intentions,” he thinks spending that much money at this time is “going down the wrong path.”
As for moving the town forward, the First Warden had some pointed advice for the island’s workforce: start showing up for the meetings, especially ones like the Financial Town Meeting. Boudreau said he ran for office to bring a voice to the workers and their needs.
“Decisions are made in the room by the people that are there. If the workers want to advance their agenda, they need to start showing up.” He said the island is at a crossroads, with a decision about “what kind of place we’re going to be. While we’re arguing, it's slipping away.”

When asked about his thoughts on an investigation, Boudreau said he was more interested in being proactive and moving forward after having brought his story out into the light. Citing the training from the AG’s office as the way to teach everyone how to behave going forward, he said he wanted to make sure this type of mess doesn’t happen again.

“Sometimes the only disinfectant is sunshine,” Boudreau said.