, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2014

Council's new leaders strike moderate tone

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — While little is certain about how the new City Council will function going forward, one thing everyone agrees on is that things will be different.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of strong majority on any issues as we go forward,” said new council President Joe McMilleon. “It’s going to be an interesting legislative experience since we have such a diverse group of people.”

The new council consists of veteran councilors Anne Ferguson, Jim Kelcourse, Bob Lavoie, Donna McClure and McMilleon, returning Councilor Jonathan Sherwood, who is back on the council after a four-year absence, and newcomers Paul Sickorez and Dave Moavenzadeh. The District 2 seat is currently vacant.

While the last City Council — and the two preceding it — were largely comprised of like-minded officials, the new council includes two distinct groups who are strong supporters of the divergent philosophies championed by former Mayor Thatcher Kezer and newly elected Mayor Ken Gray respectively.

Recognizing this divide, the council wound up turning to its two more moderate members for leadership, voting unanimously to elect McMilleon as the next council president and Kelcourse as vice president at last week’s organizational meeting.

“There are three sorts of groupings of councilors: There’s Jonathan Sherwood, Anne Ferguson and myself, and then Donna McClure was able to interest Paul [Sickorez] and David [Moavenzadeh] to run for office, and then Joe [McMilleon] and Jim [Kelcourse] are in the middle,” Lavoie said. “That’s probably why they’re serving as president and vice president, because everyone has confidence in their ability to work with everybody.”

Though McMilleon and Kelcourse were elected unanimously and without any substantial discussion at the Jan. 7 organizational meeting, Lavoie acknowledged that conversations among the councilors do take place to help form a consensus, emphasizing that all discussions adhere to Open Meeting Laws.

“After a few conversations it became obvious that people want somebody that you can work with,” Lavoie said. “So as a result, the people who can work with each group are the naturals to lead the council at this time.”

Kelcourse said that over the course of the legislative session, councilors typically lobby for future positions they’re interested in, and he acknowledged that he expressed interest in the vice presidency.

“I spoke to other city councilors about the vice presidency,” Kelcourse said. “I thought it was an opportunity for me to take on some added responsibility and serve my constituents in a new way.”

Kelcourse added that he supported McMilleon for president and was thrilled when he was elected. He said he looks up to McMilleon as a mentor and is excited for the opportunity to serve with him.

“He’s a very good friend of mine,” Kelcourse said. “I think he runs an excellent meeting, and I’m privileged to serve as vice president with him and I’m very grateful to have gotten unanimous support.”

McMilleon is entering his sixth term on the City Council and is the most experienced member of the council. He previously served two terms as councilor at-large from 2002 to 2005 before stepping down to take a break, and he was subsequently re-elected as District 5 councilor in the fall of 2007. He has served on the council in that capacity ever since.

This will be McMilleon’s second stint as the council president. He previously served in that role from 2004 to 2005, and he also served as vice president in 2009. Going forward, McMilleon said things will likely be different on the council, but that doesn’t mean the council can’t continue to accomplish great things for Amesbury.

“We’ve got a different mayor, we’ve got a different council and we have some broad perspectives on the political spectrum,” McMilleon said. “One of my main goals is going to be to facilitate us working in a collaborative way so we can accomplish things for the community.”

McMilleon said his top three priorities this session are addressing the city’s taxes, seeing the Lower Millyard redevelopment effort through to its completion and maintaining the high quality of the school system. He recognized that accomplishing these goals won’t be easy, but he’s confident it can be done.

“We’ve got some people who are on the council now and a new mayor who have experience in the private sector, but not in government, so there’s going to be a learning curve,” McMilleon said. “But I’m optimistic, and they’re good individuals, they’re well informed and they can hit the ground running.”

McMilleon’s optimism was shared by other members of the council, who said they felt confident that political divisions could be overcome for the common good of Amesbury.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Lavoie said. “They say variety is the spice of life. We clearly have some old faces and some new faces coming on, and I think the new councilors will bring some fresh perspectives.”