Portsmouth Council goes zombie on Charter Review

Carceller at Council
CRC Chair Sal Carceller presents to the Council of the Living Dead

The Portsmouth Town Council, at last night's meeting, received Chairman Sal Carceller's report from the Charter Review Committee (CRC) proposing amendments to the Town Charter, and scheduled a public workshop for 7pm on June 18.

With the obligatory 5Ws and an H out of the way, I can now explain what actually happened.

If you are a fan of George Romero's films, you will understand that his "Dead" series is not really about zombies at all: it is a large, evolving metaphor about life in America, where the zombies play the role of the uncomprehending mass of the ignorant doomed, among whom (sometimes flawed) heroes struggle to maintain niches of sanity and autonomy. "Night" was about the 60s, "Dawn" critiqued brainless consumerism of the 80s, "Day" skewered the Reagan-era military-industrial complex, and "Land" did much to anticipate the rising class consciousness of the oughts.

But nothing in that filmography can fully prepare you for Portsmouth's Council of the Living Dead. It is as if Romero's zombies from "Land" have gotten just smart enough to run for office and now sit on the dais, grunting, shrieking, and shedding odd chunks of flesh. Let me be very clear that I am talking about the PCC majority comprising President Joe Robicheau, Vice-President Judi Staven, Liz Pedro, and Paul Kesson. Republican Keith Hamilton and Democrats Mike Buddemeyer and Jim Seveney play the roles of the heroes, trapped inside the mall, fending off the undead hordes.

Before they even got to the agenda item on the CRC, the Council majority had clearly staked out the zombie high ground. In a discussion over support for the RI Ethics Commission, Pedro worried that they might use any stronger power against General Assembly members whose crimes were "unintentional." (Hmm. Could she have been thinking of any representative in particular?) Then, Staven presented the Council with a letter of rebuke to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) over parking signage at the foot of Willow Lane. Despite being told by Ed Lopes, the attorney for the Carnegie Marina, that the letter contained errors of fact, the zombie majority voted to send it anyway.

Then it was time for the presentation of the CRC report by Sal Carceller, who chaired of the year-long effort by 30 citizens to analyze the Town Charter and discuss, debate, and propose amendments. Carceller stressed the broad participation: "We had all kinds of people from Portsmouth," he said, including Republicans, Democrats, PCC members, business people, retirees, teachers, parents, a cross-section of the town. And the group, he said, worked thoughtfully, discussed the proposals from the PCC which prompted the formation of the CRC, and approved one of them. They came back with 13 changes, he said, five brand-new bits of language and eight tweaks to existing language. He asked the Council to respect the work of the committee. "We want the Council to seriously support all 13 changes."

And that was it for the forces of rationality.

Robicheau opened by saying the Council would not vote on any changes, but rather hold "a workshop." And that move was enough to open the door, the classic beat in zombie films where the glass breaks and the ravenous dead storm up to the podium in search of live brains.

And nowhere was that search for a pound of flesh more keenly felt than in the remarks of former PCC Vice-President Joe Lorenz. He had three charter proposals that hadn't been approved, and he wanted a second bite at the apple. The CRC membership, he asserted was "29 Democrats and 3 Republicans," leaving the audience to draw the obvious inference.

And the Council majority not only listened politely, but basically turned over the meeting to him. They allowed him to introduce a colleague to present his amendment that failed, rather than have him recognized by the Council President. Then they listened to these two jabber and then asked them to send along their failed amendments to the clerk for discussion at the workshop.

Carceller and CRC members tried to reason with the Council. Carceller said this risked confusing the issues, since all the proposals had been thoroughly discussed, and would now be presented back to the Council without the context. Member Jhodi Redlich articulated what several CRC members were thinking: "This makes me feel as if all the work we did is discounted." And member Len Katzman was more direct. "There were thousands of [person-hours] by the group, and no item was defeated without hours of debate," he said. "You may as well not have a CRC."

Ah, but this seems like the zombie strategy all along. Despite the fact that a Republican council appointed the CRC, it was clear from the start that the PCC didn't like the makeup. That complaint about too many Democrats was voiced by PCC director Kathy Melvin at the first meeting. But with a PCC-friendly majority on the Council, why worry about the process? No matter that a duly-appointed committee of 30 citizens worked for a year on a set of recommendations. We can shamble to the podium and have a little chat, zombie to zombie, and our dead charter amendments will rise from the grave and seek the flesh of the living.

If you want to support the work of your fellow citizens, I urge you to come to the workshop on June 18. Our town charter is too important to be left to the zombies.

Full disclosure: My wife and I were both appointed members of the CRC. I was thinking about the Walking Dead and the Cranberries the entire time I was writing this.


What a sham this council has become. To top it off, a member of the CRC wants to take his ball and go home (to his cronies on the town council. It is and was a discrace to the committee, the chair and the hard working people who gave an awful lot of time to complete this work. Each item was thoroughly discussed and voted upon by a very fair representation of the Town. Shame on you Joe and your fellow self-serving "friends".

Hi, Al...
I feel the same way. I know that everyone who participated in the CRC meetings brought thoughtful, critical engagement to the task, and we produced a set of recommendations that deserve the respect and consideration of the Council. I am very proud of the work our group of citizen volunteers did, and have to note particularly the leadership of Chair Sal Carceller and Vice-chair George Easley, who managed the sessions in a respectful, non-partisan way and ensured that all ideas got out on the table for a fair hearing.

Best Regards.