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Effort to recall two councilors launched in Bridgewater

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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Bridgewater citizens are gathering signatures to recall two of their nine town councilors, who have only been in office since last January.

The two councilors were leaders in a recent effort to fire Town Manager Troy Clarkson. Enough signatures have been submitted to complete an initial step; step two, which is to hand in more signatures, should wrap up in the next few days, and voters could be deciding whether to oust District 3 Councilor Michael Demos and District 7 Councilor Peter Riordan sometime in December.

The effort to dump Demos and Riordan was launched by the Citizens Forum, the same group that sought a court injunction in late July to stop the Town Council from firing Clarkson prior to the settlement of a legal dispute involving the hiring of a town attorney.

A Brockton Superior Court judge ultimately agreed with Clarkson’s interpretation of the town charter that he was in charge of hiring.

In an effort at a new start following the court case, the council reorganized.

But those leading the recall initiative say they remained dissatisfied with their councilors, saying Riordan and Demos continue to show “an unwillingness to work within the provisions’’ of the charter.

One specialist on local politics, who initially viewed the local debate as “growing pains’’ related to the switch in government from a board of selectmen to a town council, warned the rancor has got to stop.

“This makes the town look vengeful and mean-spirited,’’ said Michael Kryzanek, executive director of the Center for International Engagement at Bridgewater State University.

He said councilors should be cut a little slack. “You really need to give these people a chance,’’ he said.

Kryzanek questioned whether the Bridgewater recall is legal.

“When we look at recall movements within the country, they’re based on malfeasance, corruption, or incompetence,’’ he said. “This is a retaliatory strike by those who have been disappointed in the change of government. The answer is at the ballot box during a regular election, when there will be plenty of opportunity, not with a recall.’’

Both Demos and Riordan have issued statements that echo Kryzanek’s concern over legality. Demos said the petition didn’t list specific allegations of wrongdoing.

“This improper and unlawful recall drive affects more than the two councilors,’’ Demos wrote. “This is about the rule of law, the charter, and future candidates for office in this town.’’

Kryzanek said he also believes the initiative will shape Bridgewater’s future. “It could lead to instability, chaos, and few people willing to run for office,’’ he said.

Riordan called the recall effort an insult to voters who supported the recent change to a town council. “Their whole mission is to overturn this form of government,’’ Riordan said.

Paul DePalma, a District 3 voter who signed on for the recall of Demos, said Riordan is incorrect.

“A lot of people who signed thought when they voted for this form of government they would see a big change,’’ DePalma said. “As far as I can see, they are each championing their own agenda. There’s too much squabbling, and nothing is getting done.’’

Mel Shea, a Precinct 7 member who led the movement for last summer’s court injunction and is heavily involved in the recall effort, was not available for comment.

Council President Scott Pitta said he fears the recall will set a dangerous precedent for anyone who disagrees with council decisions.

“The threshold for a recall sets the bar so low we could be faced with recalls every other month,’’ he said. “I hate to say that going to court would be a good thing, but we do need some clarification on this.’’

Demos and Riordan say they may ask a judge for a legal ruling on the recall, because they disagree with the interpretation provided by the town’s lawyer.

Attorney Stacy Blundell, in a written opinion for the town clerk, said the town should continue to follow the Legislative Acts of 1990, since the new town charter doesn’t deal with recalls. Under Blundell’s reading of the 1990 provisions, only 10 percent of the voters in the affected precinct must sign the petition to trigger a recall election. That’s less than 300 signatures each for Precincts 3 and 7.

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.

Resident Carleton Hunt said he would like to see tempers cool.

“I understand the attitude [of the petitioners], but I think people need to back down and see if the reorganization of the council can be a bit more efficient,’’ he said.

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