Overlook property continues to stir controversy
Buried in the middle of two dozen agenda items before the Town Council on the night of May 19, was an interesting addition: a series of questions raised by Councilor Martha Ball regarding the transparency and forthrightness of the decision by the town to purchase a portion of the Overlook property, Plat 19, Lot 3. The citizens of New Shoreham voted 115 to 81 at the Financial Town Meeting of May 3, 2021 to contribute $4.5 million of the $10.5 million price to acquire the property. The remaining $6 million will be split between the Block Island Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and Block Island Conservancy.
Ball asked how the council could have been receiving letters of support from condo owners in Salt Pond Settlement, which abuts the Overlook property, while the negotiations were still being held in closed session? She also asked who led these various owners of Salt Pond Settlement condos to believe that the land would be undeveloped open space? Ball also asked who negotiated this deal? “We don’t get a flurry of letters at the same time unless something precipitated it,” Ball said, speaking from fifty years experience with Block Island government.
Ball was also concerned that three members of the council had signed on to a letter to the editor that appeared in the April 24 edition of The Block Island Times. The timing of the letter especially concerned Ball, as it was sent to the paper so quickly after the council voted to include the proposal at the Financial Town Meeting.
Ball wrote in her remarks to the agenda item, that the notion “that the signatories got together after the meeting and wrote that letter does test the imagination.” If the three councilors met outside of the official town council meeting and had discussions and made decisions regarding an actionable item before the council, it could violate Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act.
Ball also referenced an ad placed by Block Island Conservancy that stated the town “is buying” the land, prior to the vote at the Financial Town Meeting. The ad also featured diagrams of features such as picnic area, docks, and a building for a Harbors Facility, features that are not currently planned or budgeted for. Ball said that while the town council is not ultimately responsible for the misinformation contained in the ad, she felt that the town’s partners, specifically Block Island Conservancy, should have provided a more honest representation.
Ultimately, for Ball, it comes down to transparency, as she commented that if the town is going to be partners with people we should expect honesty and transparency. Further, she questioned whether something of this magnitude should even be considered at a Financial Town Meeting with virtually no public discussion beforehand.
When First Warden Andre Boudreau asked for responses or comments from the other members of the town council, he was
initially met with silence. He asked if anyone had an update on the timing of the lot subdivision and was again met with no answers. He finally acknowledged that the council should keep the public apprised of things going forward.
Council Member Keith Stover, one of the signatories on the letter to The Block Island Times, along with Council Member Mark Emmanuelle and Second Warden Sven Risom, finally said that he was comfortable with having signed the letter. He said it was done after the town council vote had taken place, so it did not violate the OMA.
Stover also said that he is comfortable in being able to voice his opinion after a vote occurs. He further stated that he had requested the briefing on the Open Meetings Act that the Attorney General had provided for the councilors. Stover said that Ball’s insinuation that the three councilors had violated the OMA was fundamentally not true.
As for the leaks to the Salt Pond Settlement that may have motivated letters from some owners, Stover said he had heard, through hearsay, that it was the sellers who were the source of the leaks.
The Block Island Times reached out to Steven Filippi with questions regarding the sale of the property and the concerns raised at the Town Council Meeting. Mr. Filippi, through his representative, declined to answer.
Block Island resident Keith Lewis called in to voice his objections to Ball’s “accusations” and her insinuation that some council members and the partner organizations were engaged in dishonest partnerships. He reflected the thoughts of many when he said he believes in public/private partnerships that work for the common good.
Ball also questioned how the town can avoid this lack of transparency in the future.
Risom, despite having been a proponent of the purchase and a signatory on the letter, said that the whole thing had happened rather quickly and that maybe in the future it would be better to have more time for more discussion. He said things should be more transparent, with more open dialogue, and more inclusive of the community.
Boudreau acknowledged that they could all work to be better public servants.