By Mac Cerullo
---- — Tomorrow, Mayor Thatcher Kezer will step down after eight years in office as mayor of Amesbury, ending his run as the longest serving mayor in the city’s history.
Kezer, 53, won’t be leaving on his own terms — he was defeated by Mayor-elect Ken Gray by a mere three votes in the November city election. But he said that despite the way things ended, he is proud of what his administration has accomplished and remains satisfied by the progress Amesbury has made since he first won election in 2005.
During his time in office, Kezer shepherded Amesbury through the worst economic downturn in recent memory, and under his leadership the city was able to secure funding for a number of major capital projects, including the Costello Transportation Center and the relocation of the DPW building.
His enduring legacy will likely prove to be the soon-to-be-revitalized Lower Millyard, which will be cleaned up and turned into the brand-new Heritage Park over the coming years. The Riverwalk trail will be completed and linked to Main Street around the same time as well, and the result will be a completely transformed downtown area, he said.
Kezer will likely also be remembered for his leadership during the numerous weather emergencies that threatened the community over the years, most notably the Mother’s Day flood of 2006 and the massive ice storm of 2008, each of which threatened to cause serious damage and significantly impacted residents citywide.
“What I’ve learned is that in a leadership position, if you lose your cool, then all is lost,” Kezer said. “So standing there in that parking lot waiting to see if the river was going to rise another inch, it was just about making the best decisions to manage the situation you have and to anticipate what may happen.”
While Kezer was able to accomplish many things as mayor, he was never able to shake the perception that he was too loose with the city’s purse strings, a perception that was consistently reinforced by the city’s stubbornly high tax rate.
Over time, the tax rate became Kezer’s bugaboo, and his unwillingness to acknowledge the public’s dissatisfaction with it ultimately proved to be his downfall.
Last year, when the city’s tax rate jumped by $1.11 to top the $20 threshold for the first time in decades, public frustration reached a boiling point. Many demanded that the city’s free cash — or leftover tax money from the previous year — be used to drive down the tax rate and reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Kezer refused, declaring that “tax rates don’t matter, tax bills do.” His outright dismissal of the public’s frustration infuriated many, and ultimately prompted Gray and his supporters to step forward and challenge him in the election.
For his part, Kezer knew the stance would probably cost him politically, but he defended his decision to stand firm by emphasizing that by maintaining strong reserves, the city would be better off financially in the long run. He highlighted the city’s recent two-step bond rating increase — and the resulting long-term savings on borrowing — as a validation of that decision.
“I knew it at the time, that this was going to hurt,” Kezer said. “It hurt me politically, but I was willing to make that choice because it’s more about the long-term fundamental structure working well than the short-term popularity. I have no regrets standing my ground on that and paying the price.”
Kezer remains similarly confident in the rest of the decisions he made over the past eight years as well. When asked if there were any things he wished could have gone differently during his time in office, he struggled to come up with any specific examples.
Ultimately, Kezer said he wishes the DPW project could have come to fruition sooner, and more generally, that he could have had a full-time public relations assistant to help communicate his message to the public more effectively.
“I always took the philosophy of nose to the grindstone, of getting the work done and that the accomplishments and the success will tell their own story,” Kezer said. “If I stay focused on grinding through these projects and these initiatives, then the result of getting them done will tell the whole story, but that’s not the case.
“A position that would badly be needed here, and everywhere else, is you need a person solely dedicated to pumping out the accomplishments and success stories, because there are plenty of others who want to tell an alternate story,” he continued. “If I were to do the eight years over again, I’d probably push to have a dedicated person do all that type of communication and telling the story of what’s going on.”
While Kezer was often a polarizing figure in town among residents, he was well liked by city employees and those whom he dealt with frequently in the business community.
Mike Basque, who has served as the city’s chief financial officer under each of Amesbury’s three mayors, described Kezer as a hardworking individual who always focused on trying to make the right decisions for the people of Amesbury.
“He’s hard working, takes everyone’s opinion into consideration and it’s been a very positive experience,” Basque said. “He loved what he was doing, he was very fair to work with and I found it to be enjoyable.”
Going forward, Kezer said he is still looking for a new job but has received several offers that he’s considering, though he wouldn’t specify what those offers were for.
“I am leaving all my options open,” Kezer said. “All I’ve said is that my next position, the criteria that I’ve set, is that the position doesn’t currently exist, I want to create my next position, that it has a footprint bigger than a single municipality, and it’s going to make a lot more money than I make here.”
No matter what happens, Kezer said he is committed to keeping his home in Amesbury and isn’t planning on moving anywhere. He will still be active in the community, primarily as an involved parent interested in the success of the schools and in the success of the community as a whole.
He added that as he leaves office, he wishes the community well and is walking away with his head held high as he moves on to the next phase of his life.
“I leave with no regrets and proud of the accomplishments we’ve made,” Kezer said. “I’m off to my next adventure, whatever that may be. All I know is it will be for the public good in some fashion, and it will be an adventure.”