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BRIDGEWATER

Recall dispute heading to court

Clerk wants judge to order election date

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2012
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Bridgewater’s town clerk will take on the community’s top officials in court this week over a recall election that he contends should have been scheduled months ago.

Clerk Ron Adams will ask a Brockton Superior Court judge to order the Bridgewater Town Council to schedule a recall election for two councilors. Adams argues that a 1990 recall act requires town leaders to set a vote if sufficient signatures are submitted. Recall petitions were signed and certified in late February, but the council has refused to arrange an election, the clerk said.

Anthony Pignone, the attorney representing recall targets Michael Demos and Peter Riordan, has filed a complaint asking that Bridgewater’s recall provision be declared no longer in effect, having been superseded in 2010 by a new Town Charter.

The two cases are expected to be heard together in Superior Court at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The drive to dump Demos and Riordan was launched late last summer by a group called the Citizens Forum. Members backed Town Manager Troy Clarkson in his power struggle with Bridgewater’s fledgling Town Council, which replaced the Board of Selectmen in January 2011, based on a charter change.

Forum members viewed Demos and Riordan as ringleaders in a battle between the town manager and the Town Council, which at one point had both sides in court.

While Clarkson left this month for a similar position in Hanover, efforts to remove Demos and Riordan continue.

Initial recall petitions, turned in last fall, did not meet the town’s bylaw requirements. A second recall drive was launched and new petitions were certified by the town clerk and voter registrars in late February.

Since then, Adams has been urging the Town Council to schedule a vote. Under state law, officials have to allow a minimum of 51 days between the date an election is announced and when it occurs. The gap allows candidates time to come forward and campaign. In Bridgewater’s case, Demos and Riordan would be on the recall ballot along with challengers looking to take their places.

Every time the council postpones announcing an election, Adams said, the date gets pushed further into the future.

“We could go on and on with this as they continue to delay, and meanwhile the rights of voters in Bridgewater are being denied,’’ Adams said. “It’s the law, and I’m the town clerk and I can’t ignore it.’’

Adams made one last try at getting an election date set at last Tuesday’s Town Council meeting. Under the Town Charter, discussion of an issue before the council can be halted and the issue moved to a future agenda if two councilors lodge formal protests. Riordan and Councilor Michael Berolini lodged protests Tuesday.

“If they had made the decision that night, the court case would have been thrown away,’’ Adams said. “Now it’s left up to a judge to decide.’’

If Pignone wins his complaint, an election may not be required. He has asked the court to grant a declaratory judgment concluding that Bridgewater no longer has a recall option because the new Town Charter nullified the 1990 recall act.

On Wednesday, he will ask for a preliminary injunction to stop a recall election if one is set before his declaratory judgment request is considered in court.

Not all Town Council members have been dodging a recall date. President Scott Pitta said the council should have scheduled an election instead of forcing the clerk to drag the town into court. Demos and Riordan could ask the court to block the election, if they wished, he said.

“If there’s even a remote chance they’re right, the judge will issue an injunction, and meanwhile we would have followed proper procedure,’’ Pitta said.

According to Pitta, Associate Town Counsel Stacy Blundell long ago provided her legal opinion that the 1990 recall provision stands. Councilors who disagreed with Blundell should have offered a legislative amendment to the process, instead of delaying a decision on the vote, the council president said.

“If the council fails to set an election, the townspeople have justification to say, ‘This isn’t right,’ ’’ Pitta said.

But Berolini said that there are still a lot of questions about the recall and that councilors have received e-mail from voters who said they had been misled when they signed the recall petitions.

“I also have serious questions regarding the number of signatures that are required, so I don’t think we should act,’’ Berolini said.

The recall petitions submitted to the town clerk bore fewer than 300 signatures each. The number was ruled sufficient by Blundell since it represented 10 percent of the voters in the districts the two councilors represent.

Pignone, in his court complaint, argues that 10 percent of registered voters in the town, not just in a councilor’s district, are required to trigger a recall election. That would have been 1,500 signatures in Bridgewater.

Berolini said it looks as though it will be up to the court to settle the recall debate.

“If the judge rules we have to set an election, then we’ll do it,’’ Berolini said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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