Fall River Mayor Accused of ‘Pay to Play’ With Marijuana Agreements
This article has been updated to include general statements on the views of multiple online commenters.
FALL RIVER — In what to some may seem like déjà vu, on Monday the Fall River City Council heard accusations that city officials tried to charge a would-be marijuana business astronomical application fees for a host community agreement.
During a citizen's input session at a special city council meeting on Monday, local business owners Joseph and Stephanie Merkt stated that they were asked to pay $25,000-50,000 in application fees for the agreement.
The pair also claimed that their phone calls about the application were only returned after they made a donation to Mayor Paul Coogan's reelection campaign.
Stephanie Merkt noted that after trying to hear back from city officials for "weeks," a friend suggested making a campaign donation.
“At 9:46 I made the donation. At 10:16 I got a phone call," she said. "Whether it was a coincidence or not, I don’t know what to say.”
They also alleged that the paperwork referred to a Fall River Cannabis Review Commission that does not exist — and said that when they pointed this out to officials, the city offered them their nonrefundable deposit back, without resolving the issue.
"I feel if I would've gave them $25,000, I would have a different piece of paper in my hand right now, and I would be celebrating," he said, noting that it seemed like a "pay to play" process.
"I really don't know where to go from here," Merkt finished.
City councilors called the accusations "concerning," although councilor Bradford Kilby said he was uncomfortable with the allegations being thrown around the floor.
"When we start using the words pay to play, we start accusing individuals of inappropriate conduct just based on accusations," said Kilby. "It’s wrong."
Several public comments on a live stream of the meeting online noted that the meeting felt like a staged campaign event for City Council President Cliff Ponte, who is running for mayor.
Some councilors and commenters hearkened back to disgraced former mayor Jasiel Correia's time in office.
Just last month, Correia was sentenced to serve six years in prison on embezzlement and corruption charges in part for soliciting bribes for marijuana agreements.
Current Mayor Paul Coogan replaced Correia following his election in 2019.
Councilor Shawn Cadime requested someone from Coogan's office be brought before the council to discuss the city's host community agreement application process.
He also suggested bringing in an attorney with KP Law to present different types of marijuana agreements and the processes involved in each.
Mayor Paul Coogan's office could not immediately be reached for comment.