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Fall River mayor says he won’t resign, setting up recall election

Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II.
Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2018

Jasiel F. Correia II, the once up-and-coming Fall River mayor indicted on federal fraud charges, said Wednesday he is not resigning his seat, setting the stage for a raucous recall election that could feature Correia vying on the very ballot to replace him.

Correia’s decision, announced in a Globe interview Wednesday and subsequently on social media, allowed the city to officially move toward its second mayoral recall referendum in less than five years. The City Council is slated to meet on Jan. 2 to set a date for the election — potentially as early as March 12 — when voters will weigh whether to oust the 27-year-old from office and who will finish his term.

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In a twist made possible by city rules, Correia says he “can and will” be among the candidates. Similar to the 2014 recall of then-mayor William Flanagan, Correia can collect signatures to make the ballot, creating the potential that he could be recalled, and then voted back into office, on the same day.

The possibility caused much consternation, and head-scratching, among Flanagan’s detractors four years ago, though he ultimately finished second to then-Bristol district attorney Sam Sutter in the election. (Sutter then lost to Correia less than a year later in a regularly scheduled election.)

Now, Flanagan and Sutter say they’re weighing their own bids in the expected recall, injecting new intrigue into the politically charged atmosphere that’s gripped the South Coast city since Correia’s October arrest.

“I’m not afraid to ask the people again to vote for me,” Correia said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I think the track record speaks for itself. I’m out there every day, I’m at the parades, I’m at the coffee shops, I’m at the person who is turning 100 years old’s birthday with a citation from the city.

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“This isn’t a matter or a decision that I need to make by myself. And this isn’t a decision that the City Council should make for the people of Fall River,” he continued. “If they [the voters] decide that they want to continue to have the administration despite what’s happening, then they will reaffirm my election.”

A onetime political wunderkind elected as the youngest mayor in Fall River’s history, Correia was arrested on charges of defrauding investors in his tech startup SnoOwl of $231,000 and filing false tax returns to hide it. Correia, a Democrat, has pleaded not guilty.

It’s sparked months of withering criticism and calls to relinquish his post, including from the City Council and Governor Charlie Baker. The City Council voted last week to give him five business days — or until Wednesday — to do so or face the recall election.

The city’s Board of Election Commissioners has marked March 12 as the earliest date that a vote can be held, according to the city clerk’s office. Should the council pick that date, candidates can begin pulling nomination papers on Jan. 4.

Sutter, who returned to private practice after his 2015 loss to Correia, said he’s considering running again because he feels “there is some unfinished business.”

“I think the city needs steady, honest leadership,” said Sutter, who chalked up his loss three years ago to instituting a controversial trash fee to help close a budget deficit. Correia later eliminated the fee.

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“I don’t intend to do that again,” Sutter said. “The city spoke clearly — no new fees. And I heard them loud and clear.”

Flanagan, the three-term mayor booted from office in 2014 by voters furious over layoffs in the fire department and his own pay-as-you-throw trash program, said he has not “ruled it in or out” whether to run. He said Correia, like he did in 2014, has every right to run in his own recall election.

“Thus, from now until Election Day, he bears the burden of proving himself to the voters why he should stay in office,” Flanagan said. “That’s a herculean task for him.”

Cliff Ponte, president of the Fall River City Council, said Correia’s decision Wednesday not to resign threatens to drag the city through “continued negativity.” He did not directly respond when asked whether he is considering running, saying he enjoys his current role on the council.

“Right now, this community needs stabilization,” he said, “and I look forward [to] the day when this community has returned back to normal business.”

A superior court judge in 2014 ruled that Flanagan’s name could appear on the ballot to replace him, in what was at the time an unprecedented effort to remove an elected official from office under the city’s 1980 recall act.

The next year, voters elected a commission to examine its charter, and a new version of the document was approved at the ballot in 2017. But the commission did not recommend changing the language around its recall elections, largely in deference to the “legal precedent” set by the 2014 ruling, said Michael L. Miozza, the commission’s chair.

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“The argument was: You just had a successful recall, why would you change it?” Miozza said, admitting that no one expected there to be another recall so soon. “It’s remarkable we went through one recall, and within four or five years, we’re going through a second recall.”

Correia has remained defiant since his arrest, claiming his innocence and framing the allegations as a business dispute that unfolded before he became mayor. Should he step down, he said Wednesday, “I think there are certainly people who would look at a resignation as an admission of guilt.

“If you maintain your innocence and you know you’re innocent of something, you shouldn’t back down, you shouldn’t be afraid, and you ask people to support you,” he said. “If they choose not to support you, you can’t force them to.”


Reach Matt Stout at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.