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Amesbury rivals debate role of a mayor

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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What style of leadership would best suit Amesbury has emerged as a subject of debate as the race for mayor heads towards a preliminary election Sept. 20.

In his bid for a fourth term, Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III offered a positive view under his watch, highlighting his success in securing federal and state money for such projects as the planned relocation of the public works yard and the renovation and expansion of the Lower Millyard parking garage.

“We’ve got a lot of things that are in play,’’ said Kezer, also pointing to the construction of a new regional transportation center that will house the senior center. “I want to continue to navigate all those initiatives and projects to completion to ensure the long-term stability of Amesbury.’’

Ted Semesnyei, one of Kezer’s two challengers, said the city needs a change from what he says is the “top-down management style’’ it has experienced in six years under Kezer.

“I believe strongly that with all the complex fiscal challenges facing local communities, we need a new style of governing, one that is much more transparent and open and really flattens the decision-making process,’’ said Semesnyei, a Planning Board member. He said that meant “bringing more groups and individuals into the process.’’

Kezer, Semesnyei, and James N. Thivierge , a former selectman, are vying in the preliminary, which will reduce the field to two for the Nov. 8 election. Thivierge, who has lost six previous bids for mayor, could not be reached.

Semesnyei, who has worked as economic development coordinator for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission since 2003, said the lack of competition for some municipal offices in recent elections - including two years ago when he and two others earned seats on the Planning Board as write-in candidates - is evidence of the need for a new style of leadership.

Part of the reason for the uncontested seats, he said, “is that the message has been put out . . . that Town Hall is not really open to listening to every opinion and engaging in honest debate with the community on the host of issues we face.’’

“I’ve heard over and over again from people that they want to be part of the process,’’ Semesnyei said, but they have told him they don’t know how or have offered their assistance “and generally been ignored.’’

Kezer dismissed the idea that he is not engaged with the community, pointing to the revamped municipal website, his monthly cable access show, his visits to the senior center, and his regular interactions with people “just being out and about and a member of the community.’’

“In order to get things done and move Amesbury forward, it takes leadership and it takes action. Some people want to label that as ‘top down.’ I just call it leadership.’’

Semesnyei chided Kezer for likening his position to being the CEO of a $50 million organization.

“I do not like using that term,’’ Semesnyei said. “We are not electing a CEO of Amesbury. We are electing a mayor. A CEO can pick and choose the information that is released to the public. . . . They don’t have to listen to every resident of our community. A mayor needs to do that.’’

Kezer said he stood by the reference.

He said his job is like being “chief executive of a $50 million organization with nearly 500 employees impacting $1.8 billion of people’s assets,’’ referring to the value of all homes and businesses. “So it’s much like a corporation with boards of directors and shareholders.’’

Semesnyei said he believes he would bring a well-rounded professional background to the mayor’s position.

Prior to assuming his job with the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, Semesnyei worked for three years as an economist for a forecasting and consulting firm in Philadelphia, and for two years as a data analyst for the US Census Bureau in Washington.

Kezer said that in addition to getting key projects in motion, he has brought innovation to city government.

“We have been able to pretty well hold the bottom line flat for several years and at the same time manage and improve our services by just finding new or better ways of doing our business,’’ he said. As an example, he cited the cost-saving move to have emergency medical technicians travel in a sport utility vehicle rather than a firetruck when following an ambulance to an emergency scene.

“It’s something a lot of other cities and towns in Massachusetts may have thought about doing, but we are the ones to first pull it off,’’ Kezer said.