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    Letter: The real issue in Westerly? An abuse of power.

    I advised friends who praised my recent government satire, to distance themselves from me, to avoid the consequences of the association. Another friend, Richard A. Smith, did more than that. He wrote a letter to declare a small portion of my comments — comments about the comprehensive plan — to be “nonsense.” I respectfully disagree.

    Specifically, he described as “nonsense” what he said was my statement, “that Mr. Ritacco helped run the committee ‘to guide’ what benefits neighborhoods and developers would get from the plan.” But that’s not exactly what I said. What my letter actually said was that the Democratic Town Committee chairman, “helped run the comprehensive plan committee to guide what security, benefits, or ‘zoning overlays’ [emphasis added] neighborhoods and developers would get from the plan.” My response follows.

    Mr. Ritacco did help run the comprehensive plan committee. The committee did produce a plan to guide Westerly’s future. The plan did include some benefits. And the plan was, in the main, skillfully written by several very good people. One can certainly praise Mr. Smith and several others for their good efforts, and I did at the time. But my friend did not include my recent letter’s use of the word “security.” Nor did he include my use of the words, “zoning overlays,” when he characterized my recent mention of the comprehensive plan.

    That comprehensive plan provided less “security” for my then-neighborhood. And that plan’s developer attorney’s imposed “zoning overlays” erased some previous zoning protection. That created whole new layers of potential development within many neighborhoods that had previously felt secure in their residential zoning.

    One might claim that plan to be “balanced,” with respect to residential versus developer interests. But in fact it unbalanced some zoning security. And, through the use of ambiguous language — language that could be legally interpreted in different ways — the plan created a new market for lawyers to argue these new issues. I asked the then-planning board and the Town Council to remedy this: to eliminate some ambiguity and to reconfirm my neighborhood’s zoning protection. And, over the objections of the plan’s developer attorney, they commendably did so. The plan left other sections of Westerly less protected.

    But this comprehensive plan “nonsense” disagreement is a distracting minor issue. The major issues? 1.) “Power corrupts,” as Lord Acton said so long ago. Unchecked power also breeds a degree of arrogance and intolerance of criticism. And 2.) “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” as Justice Hugo Black affirmed.

    So it is good that the council advanced Jack Armstrong’s Westerly charter proposal. Armstrong proposed some good checks upon government power. But, when one councilor threatened “action” against the news media — and when another felt that the media should present itself to the council to apologize — for expressing opinions absolutely protected by the First Amendment — that is not good at all.

    Philo Willetts


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