By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor
FALL RIVER, Mass. — What seemed a simple change in how residential trash is collected became the tipping point for those who would oust Mayor William Flanagan. It isn’t the first time that local resident Robert Camara has tried a recall petition to get rid of Flanagan, but this time his petition passed legal review and was certified.
The petition signed by Camara, Jordan Silvia and 10 others claims the mayor failed in his fiduciary responsibility and asks for his recall for initiating a pay-as-you-throw program (PAYT), which the document calls “regressive and punitive to citizens and businesses.”
The opposition’s statement connects the $3.5 million projected revenues from PAYT to what the opponents believe are several projected budget shortfalls resulting from two lost grants totaling $14.7 million and the loss of $1.7 million in annual landfill revenues.
City clerk Alison Bouchard recalled previous attempts at recalls, but none of them succeeded, she said. Camara’s earlier attempt, in 2012, didn’t have the proper notarization of signatures. Media reports from the time stated that the petition failed because allegations in its statements were “perjurious.”
This time the mayor has hired a personal special counsel, attorney Preston W. Halperin of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Schectman Halperin Savage LLP, to respond to requests for statements from the press.
“Pay As You Throw trash programs ... exist throughout the country including 141 Massachusetts cities and towns,” Halperin wrote in a recent e-mail to ecoRI News. “Its purpose is to encourage recycling while at the same time dramatically reducing the quantity of solid waste and the cost of disposal. Supported by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, residents pay a fee for each bag of trash. PAYT has been shown to increase recycling and reduce solid waste disposal anywhere from 25 to 45 percent.
“Unfortunately, opponents of Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan are using PAYT and the attendant fees ($2 for a 30-gallon trash bag) as a political football, seeking to recall the Mayor from office. The Mayor’s opponents claim that PAYT is a regressive tax unfairly imposed on the citizens of Fall River.”
Halperin noted that this allegation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of PAYT programs. He wrote that, while it’s true that each resident will pay a fee to dispose of trash under this new program, it’s not a tax and it’s no more regressive than the charges paid by each resident for other utilities, including electricity, water and gas.
“Ironically, one of the selling points for PAYT is the inherent fairness of residents paying only for what they throw away, rather than subsidizing their neighbors' wastefulness,” he wrote. “The per bag fee structure creates the incentive to recycle and reduce solid waste.”
Camara told The Herald News that the acceptance of the recall petition was a “victory for the people” and showed that “the outcome of the process and the integrity has been confirmed.”
Camara has claimed that the mayor ran on a campaign promise not to institute a PAYT program.
“I'm drained, I'm strapped, and as was said in the meeting the pay as you throw was just the last straw,” petitioner John Pacheco told ABC News recently.
On the Facebook page of the Committee to Recall Mayor William Flanagan, the group announced that as of Aug. 18 it is just 18 signatures short of 1,000. A petition drive is being planned for Friday’s Holy Ghost Festival of New England this weekend.
Under Section 292 of the Commonwealth’s Acts of 1980, residents can ask for the recall of any elected official by submitting an affidavit with the signatures of 10 or more registered voters to the city clerk’s office. The Election Commission certifies the signatures, and the city’s legal department reviews the statement. If the affidavit is in good form, the city clerk then issues blank petitions to be circulated by those seeking the recall.
To get a recall election, they must collect signatures of 5 percent of the city’s registered voters within 20 days.
In this case, they have until Sept. 2 to submit 2,500 signatures. If all 2,500 signatures are certified, the petition is passed on to the City Council for an election date within 60 days.