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Fall River recall could result in reelection of embattled mayor

 Three-term Mayor William Flanagan is on the threshold of both a recall vote and a reelection vote. The paradox reflects more than confusion; it speaks of a city discontented and, at times, apathetic.
Three-term Mayor William Flanagan is on the threshold of both a recall vote and a reelection vote. The paradox reflects more than confusion; it speaks of a city discontented and, at times, apathetic.Debee Tlumacki/Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

FALL RIVER — Politicians rarely go quietly. But the embattled mayor of this waterfront city faces a political paradox this month: Residents can toss him out of office, then vote him right back in.

If it seems a bit confusing, it is. Even residents are scratching their heads.

It began when opponents of Mayor William Flanagan, furious over layoffs in the fire department and a pay-as-you-throw trash program, sought his recall, gathering several thousand signatures to force an election. A large pack of candidates emerged, including Flanagan himself, a three-term mayor who decided to hedge his bets by entering the race for his successor.

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In a quirk of the city’s 1980 recall act, voters on Tuesday will be asked to make two decisions at once: whether to recall Flanagan, and who will replace him if they do. With so many candidates, Flanagan could conceivably be ousted from office and reelected at the same time.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Gail Hubert, 52, summing up the view of many city residents. “It’s sad, is what it is.”

Politics have rarely held more than a passing interest here, many residents said, broadly brushed aside as a modest distraction. But in the past few months, a sprawling, sharp-edged political drama has leapt to the forefront, transforming a sleepy city government into a riveting, messier-by-the-minute spectacle.

Supporters of a recall have argued that Flanagan, if he were ousted, should not be allowed to succeed himself and that the upcoming election should be a primary, with the two leading candidates advancing to a run-off.

“If a majority of people don’t want someone to be mayor, why should they be stuck with him?” asked Lesley Rich, a lawyer for the recall campaign. “The city will not be able to move forward.”

But the courts have ruled otherwise, setting up a free-for-all that has left many voters shaking their heads.

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“Most of the time, politics here are go with the flow,” said Janice Joseph, 73, standing in the shadow of City Hall on a chilly Friday. “But all of a sudden, this!”

Beyond the legal machinations, allegations have swirled around Flanagan in recent months, most notably when a city councilor accused the mayor of intimidating him with a gun during a late-night meeting in Flanagan’s car over the recall petition.

Flanagan has denied the allegation, saying he showed the councilor his gun after he mentioned he was interested in getting a license.

City councilors have also raised questions about who authorized the installation of windows in the city’s government center last summer, saying no records were kept.

Coupled with anger over the trash collection fees, the criticism has exacted a heavy political toll on Flanagan.

“I hope he goes, and a lot of people feel the same way,” said Gloria Stone, 65.

Flanagan defends his performance, saying crime, education, and the city’s finances have improved during his tenure.“As a whole, the city has been moving forward,” he said.

Flanagan acknowledged that the two-pronged election is a “unique situation,” but he said he has no qualms about remaining mayor even if he is recalled.

“I’m campaigning within the election rules,” he said. “I place my faith in the voters.”

Flanagan said he opted for the pay-as-you-throw program as a way to boost recycling while cutting costs in the face of a multimillion budget shortfall.

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“The alternative would have been to cut and slash municipal services,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been the right decision.”

Flanagan said that he was forced to lay off firefighters after a generous federal grant expired but that the department has added personnel since he became mayor.

But many voters say the layoffs and collection fees signaled deeper problems with the city’s financial management.

“That’s a terrible situation,” said Joseph Dowling, a 67-year-old who said he will vote to recall Flanagan. “They should have found the money somewhere.”

Shawn Cadime, who worked as city administrator under Flanagan, has joined the race to replace Flanagan and pledges to improve the city’s finances.

“The city has just kind of crumbled,” said Cadime, now town administrator in Seekonk. “I think everyone’s ready to move on.’’

Sam Sutter, the district attorney for Bristol County, said he decided to run as he watched the mayor’s office come under increasing fire.

“The worse it seemed to get, the more I thought about running,” he said.

Sutter said he was particularly dismayed by reports of the late-night meeting between Flanagan and the city councilor and predicted that the mayor would be recalled.

“It’s one of the strangest political situations I’ve ever seen,” Sutter said.

In downtown Fall River, a busy stretch of small shops and side streets leading down to the water, many people voiced frustration about the strange and counterintuitive recall process, saying it reflected poorly on the city.

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“I’m definitely not happy about it,” Hubert said. “It doesn’t look good at all.”

Janice Joseph said that she thought Flanagan has been a good mayor overall and that he had to make unpopular decisions to deal with a tight budget. But his time was coming to a close, she predicted.

“There’s too much against him right now,” she said.


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.