Bridgewater’s switch from a town meeting and selectmen form of government to a town manager and town council arrangement 19 months ago was meant to streamline and improve municipal management.
Instead, the rancorous battling that accompanied local politics before the governmental change has carried over, with no end in sight.
As resident Bryan McSheffrey put it, “We were at a standstill with the town meeting form of government, and we’ve been at a standstill with the Town Council.”
The latest political clash involves an effort by a group called the Citizens Forum to recall two town councilors, Michael Demos and Peter Riordan. A Brockton Superior Court judge recently sided with the group, ordering the Town Council, which has been fighting the initiative, to set a date for a recall election.
The drive to remove Demos and Riordan from office began late last summer, with Citizens Forum members describing the men as ringleaders in a power struggle between Town Manager Troy Clarkson and the Town Council. Clarkson has since left Bridgewater to become town manager in Hanover, and a search committee consisting of four town councilors has begun looking for a replacement. It hopes to have a new town manager hired by the end of October, when interim manager Richard Kerbel is scheduled to leave.
“If you have someone who is abusing his authority, you don’t have to wait a year,” Citizens Forum founder Mel Shea said last week about the recall initiative. “You get rid of that cancer as fast as you can,” he said.
The initial recall petitions, turned in last fall, did not meet the town bylaw’s requirements. A second recall drive was launched, and the petitions were submitted in late February.
But despite repeated requests from Town Clerk Ron Adams, the Town Council has refused to schedule a recall election, questioning the legality of the 1990 recall provision being invoked.
In April, Adams asked Brockton Superior Court to step in, and this month Judge Richard Cosgrove ruled the 1990 measure is still in effect, and ordered the council to set an election date. Demos and Riordan will be given the choice of resigning or fighting to retain their seats.
Adams has recommended the vote take place Oct. 27. The Town Council is expected to discuss the recommendation when it meets Tuesday.
The judge’s decision is not the first legal case against the Town Council. A year ago, Clarkson asked the court to settle a debate over hiring and firing of town employees. The judge also ruled against the Town Council, saying those duties belonged to Clarkson. Councilors engaged in several other battles with Clarkson during his tenure, including a debate over a subdivision drainage study that Clarkson commissioned and the council ultimately rejected, Clarkson’s refusal to sign the council’s list of goals and responsibilities for his position, and his not checking with the council before hiring a consulting firm to study a development plan for a large tract off Route 24.
Meanwhile, residents and town employees have jumped in on both sides of the melee.
Franklin Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting, a veteran of the manager/town council government model who had watched the struggle for power between Clarkson and the Town Council since just after the council’s first meeting in January 2011, said it seemed the shift in government hasn’t changed the political climate in the town.
Still, he said, he found the recall effort surprising. “Generally speaking, if you do something criminal, that’s one thing,” Nutting said. “But if it’s something people don’t like, is that a reason for a recall?”
Resident Bruce Langlan, a member of the committee that promoted Bridgewater’s change in town government, also spoke against the recall. “The two individuals haven’t done anything illegal,” he said. “They’ve stood up and voiced their opinions and looked after the town’s interests. A small group of people didn’t like the way the votes were going.”
McSheffrey said the situation could be viewed as a new government “trying to work the kinks out.” But he added, “There’s a subtext of people who resent the new town charter.” He said he hopes the Town Council will heed the court order and schedule the election.
“I have deep reservations about it, but then I look at the disruption it would cause to continue to fight it,” he said.
Demos said the judge’s ruling has serious ramifications for current and future Town Council members. Responding by e-mail, he said when the provisions of the local recall were approved in 1990, the town had no precincts. A recall required support of 10 percent of all registered voters, which today would mean gathering more than 1,500 signatures.
Under the judge’s recent ruling on the 1990 provisions, only 10 percent of the voters in the affected precinct must sign the petition to trigger a recall election. For Demos and Riordan, fewer than 300 signatures were needed apiece.
“This ruling now indicates every duly elected councilor can be subject to recall by a small group of people because they don’t like his or her opinion,” Demos wrote. “It keeps a subtle and unfair pressure on office holders to play to political expediency rather than to stand firm for their own beliefs as to what should be done.”
Nutting warned the recall election won’t end the political strife in town, adding the battling has to stop or it will have long-range effects, scaring off potential candidates for town manager.
“If the town is going to attract a high-quality candidate for its next town manager, they are going to have to settle down and stop fighting.”