A Superior Court judge is considering whether he’ll allow a referendum election to go forward that could remove the mayor of Fall River from office.
Mayor William Flanagan wants an injunction to stop residents from voting in what would be the southeastern Massachusetts city’s first mayoral recall ever.
Opponents of the current mayor say he should be unseated because he’s wasted money and increased costs to taxpayers – while the mayor says the people who want him recalled should just wait to make their arguments in the next scheduled election.
Supporters of the recall say momentum started to build this summer, when a new program called “Pay to Throw” began, requiring Fall River residents to buy a certain kind of trash bags for the first time. Mayor Flanagan said the program had two advantages: it created a new source of revenue for the city, and encouraged people to recycle more -- using Fall River’s existing free pick-up recycling service.
But many people balked – and they wanted Flanagan gone. Not willing to wait until the next election, some threw their support behind a faction that had tried to recall Flanagan a few years ago. The effort was led then, as it is now, by retired Fall River fire chief Robert Camara.
“The reality is we just don’t believe we can afford him anymore.”
Fall River was once the country’s leading textile manufacturing center, and has struggled to recover since the mills closed. Camara says Flanagan isn’t effectively addressing major problems, like a $3.1 million dollar deficit in the school department. He helped gather signatures from 5 percent of the city’s registered voters, as required by city statute to authorize a recall.
“We have sent a message not only to the people of Fall River and the politicians but throughout the state that when people get tired enough, they might rise up and take back government.”
Flanagan isn’t going down without a fight. The mayor filed an objection with the Fall River board of elections, saying some of the signatures on the recall petition were invalid, some of the signers had been misled or intimidated, and the petitions hadn’t been filed within the time limit. Still, the city approved the petitions and scheduled the referendum, Flanagan’s attorney, Preston Halperin of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, went to court for the injunction. Halperin says a small group of people shouldn’t be able to force a recall just because they disagree with an elected official’s policy decisions.
“It’s almost a bigger question than what’s happening in Fall River. It really goes to the question of how do we want government to function? If we elect a mayor for a two year term, as in the case with Fall River, do we want that mayor to be distracted, and do we want the city to have to spend $60,000 on running an interim election?”
But Halperin says it isn’t surprising that this would happen in an economically depressed area.
“If people are not doing well, or as well as they like, they’re probably inclined to be unhappy. And if you believe that your government is partly to blame for your predicament, then the reflex is to change the government.”
Along with policies and politics, bemused Fall River residents watching more or less from the sidelines have also had to consider an amount of intrigue… Including an incident where a city councilor alleges Flanagan took him on a late night drive in August and attempted to intimidate him with a gun. The district attorney has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. No charges have been filed.
It all shows how the fight for local power has become brutal in recent years, says lifelong Fall River resident Delores Lopes.
“Are the people running – are they really thinking what’s best for the city, and what the people really want? So that’s why I still think, in this case, have the recall, and let them know what the people want, and go from there.”
Superior Court Judge Thomas McGuire Jr is expected to rule soon on whether Mayor Flanagan will face voters on Dec. 16. If Fall River residents are allowed to go to the polls, they’ll not only vote on whether or not to throw Flanagan out of office. They’ll also decide who should replace him. More than a dozen candidates have signaled their intention to appear on the ballot. And what’s ironic is that Flanagan wants to be among them. He’d be hedging his bets in the last possible way – hoping somehow that even if residents vote to unseat him, they’ll also chose to re-elect him as mayor.