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A Hummel Report Investigation

(Re) Calling Mayor Flannigan

Even before he was sworn in for a second term on Jan. 2, Fall River Mayor William Flanagan discovered an unexpected challenge for the new year: a recall effort by two city residents, upset with controversial decisions the mayor made right after his election in November. They include the appointment of an interim fire chief facing a criminal charge in Rhode Island. If successful, it will be the first time a mayor has been recalled in Fall River's 209-year history.

See the original report on Mayor Flanagan HERE.

See the original report on Lieutenant Coogan HERE and a follow-up report HERE.

SCRIPT

It was a day for celebration, reflection and looking ahead.

Fall River Mayor William Flanagan won his first re-election bid in November by a comfortable margin - and during his inauguration speech at Durfee High School earlier this month talked about challenges he and the city face in his second  term.

Now he'll have to add one more thing to that list. Flanagan, who has made a series of controversial moves since election day, finds himself facing a recall effort.

Camara: ``He doesn't seem to be able to admit he's made a mistake, he's not truthful with the people.''

Bob Camara is a 38-year veteran of the Fall River Fire Department who retired two years ago. Dan Robillard is a lifelong resident who has teamed up with Camara to try and have Flanagan removed.

And they're not alone.

Camara: ``Many people who've called me have said they voted for him based on his assertion that he'd learned from his mistakes, and he was going to do better in his second term, then within eight days of his reelection, before he was even sworn in, he made the Coogan appointment.''

Robillard: ``One of the catalysts was, of course, the appointment of Mike Coogan as the interim fire chief.''

Coogan is a lieutenant and former president of the firefighters union - who we first told you about in the fall of 2009 when he was running for the state Senate. Coogan now faces criminal charges from the Rhode Island Attorney General's office for working as an unlicensed contractor in Barrington - and ignoring a civil judgment against him.

But what incensed many was Flanagan's decision to oust veteran Fire Chief Paul Ford and replace him on an interim basis with Coogan - a strong political supporter - and bypassing more than a dozen others who Camara says are much more qualified.

It caused an uproar within the department where some firefighters worried about Coogan's ability to manage the large-scaled fires Fall River sees regularly.

Camara: ``As a district chief for 24 years I can say there would be a concern at any working fire with a lieutenant, because in reality a  lieutenant's job is basically to follow the orders of a chief officer and the only incidents a lieutenant is in charge of are basically brush fires, automobile fires and dumpster fires. You need experience in order to make decisions. Many people don't understand that you have seconds to make life-and-death decisions at a fire scene. Fire chief stand in front of a building and have literally seconds to make a decision about a structure they've never seen before in their life.''

The Coogan situation has prompted the Fall River Herald News to devote a  special section on its website - called The Coogan Controversy - with dozens of stories chronicling the unfolding events.

Last month, Flanagan then did an about-face - demoting Coogan back to lieutenant saying there were questions about Coogan's documentation of time he spent doing union business on the city clock - something Camara says the mayor knew about already, and in fact had approved, but used as an excuse to throw Coogan under the bus because he had become such a huge a political liability for the mayor.

Camara: ``He gave him that time off in the contract. It came from Mayor Flanagan. He's the one who wrote those time-off clauses into the contract. They were told that he's not coming to work and will not to come to work, and we will let you know when he's coming back to work and that came that's directly from the 6th floor.''

Hummel: ``Sixth floor being the mayor's office.''

Hummel: ``So what does Mayor Flanagan have to say about all  of this? Well, we  don't know, but it isn't for lack of trying. Two weeks ago we called his office to schedule an interview. His chief of staff assured us she or the mayor would get back to us. After numerous follow-up emails and phone calls...we're still waiting.''

This is what the mayor was doing one day last week when we called and his office told us he was too busy to talk with us. Flanagan readily sat down with us in October when there were questions about work the city did around Commonwealth Landing, a waterfront project being developed by one of the mayor's chief campaign contributors.

Flanagan: ``I'll talk about this issue anytime because I truly believe what we did was the right thing to do....''

It is that development, though, that led to the second major controversy.  Flanagan last month fired veteran City Planner James Hartnett, in the middle with the red tie - sitting in on our interview with the mayor. Camara says Hartnett made some decisions the mayor didn't like, including several unfavorable to the developer at Commonwealth Landing. Now Hartnett finds himself out of a job - replaced by someone with no planning experience who got a hefty pay raise.

It was Hartnett who also told us that the city was going to spend more than the $250,000 the mayor said was committed to infrastructure improvements surrounding the project.

Camara: ``This is a retaliation because he balked at what happened with one of the mayor's major campaign contributors."

Hummel: ``Do you think those two events were turning points for some people?"

Camara: ``I believe so, I believe a lot of the people who actually voted for him feel betrayed. They said, look he said he was learning, he's made probably two most egregious mistakes since he's been in office and hasn't even begun his second term."

Last month Flanagan, in an effort to reach out to Camara and Robillard, convened what he called a beer summit at a local restaurant to talk about their concerns.

Hummel: ``Change your mind?''

Camara: ``Absolutely not. If anything it made me more committed with some of the answers I received to the questions."

The recall effort has a hit some resistance at City Hall, where Camara and Robillard have been told there is a 90-day waiting period from the time the mayor is sworn in before they can file for a recall petition. They are waiting for a legal opinion.

Robillard: ``But once that's all said and done then we'll have to collect 5 percent of the registered voters and if we get it to that level then it will go on the ballot."
That's 2,600 signatures.

Hummel: ``You know, the critic would say: `Hey people elected this guy, he got 55 percent of the vote, the people have spoken...'"

Camara: ``I had a person knock on my door Christmas Day.. Christmas Day and he apologized for bothering me  but he wanted  to say he wanted to donate his time  and his entire family. There are people that I think have maybe said `Look we might have made a mistake.' Let us let this thing run its course. Let us get the people, if we don't get the signatures, they can laugh all the way to the 6th floor.  If we do get the signatures we'll see - the people have spoken and that's what this country is all about."

In Fall River Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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