, Newburyport, MA

January 9, 2014

Our view: Mayor Gray strikes right note in inaugural speech

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s never easy trying to bridge the divide between polarized political camps. But newly inaugurated Mayor Ken Gray has done a good job of setting a course, by defining the priorities he was elected on and reaching out to the various interest groups in Amesbury.

A week or so into his new job, Gray gave his formal inaugural address Tuesday night before about 200 onlookers. In it, Gray stressed three points that he will focus on — getting Amesbury’s runaway tax rate and property tax situation under control, putting a priority on education and mending the political wounds in town. He hit the right notes on all of these measures. Though the details were few — as they usually are in inaugural addresses — the message was clear.

It’s a plan that all can agree is in Amesbury’s best interest, in concept at the very least. The execution of the plan will of course be the most important part. Already Gray has demonstrated that he is focusing on the town’s tax and spending situation by putting a hold on all discretionary spending. It may be fruitful having a new set of eyes examining the city’s spending habits.

One of the harder missions to accomplish is permanently breaking down the walls that separate the city’s two political camps. Gray won the election by the razor-thin margin of three votes. He has wisely recognized that the political scene in Amesbury is about as fractured as it can get. On the City Council in particular, candidates who represent the two polarized political camps won an equal number of seats, while the rest fell to candidates who have tried to maintain some independence. This is a coalition government of sorts. To that end, Gray is willing to take a number of steps to be accessible, among them holding “office hours” at various locations outside of City Hall to hear what the public has to say.

Amesbury has been in the coalition government phase before — disastrously in 2006 and 2007 — when open warfare broke out between the same two political groups. Yet we see some signs that this time, leaders in both camps are coming together. On the council, Joe McMilleon has been elected president by his colleagues. It’s a good choice for Amesbury, as McMilleon has a track record of straightforward, no-nonsense leadership that doesn’t coddle either political camp. It was also good to see an influential Kezer supporter, Peter Hoyt, serve as master of ceremonies at the inauguration, surely a signal that it is time to move on from the election.

Even so, on the various Internet comment boards in Amesbury, Gray is already being shredded by a handful of opponents for alleged missteps. Some make gleeful prognostications that he will fail in the job. This is reminiscent of the same political vitriol that greeted a then-newly elected Mayor Kezer in 2006. We hope that the bulk of Amesbury residents will see this kind of sputum for what it is, and will recognize that tearing down the city’s duly-elected leader before he has even a month under his belt is nothing more than sour grapes.

On the flip side, there are many residents who are actively talking about what is positive in Amesbury, and figuring out how to market it. The city has such an impressive portfolio of positives — a fascinating history and large array of cultural sites, beautiful open spaces, extensive trail networks, a solid core of social, athletic and charitable groups, an interesting and diverse arts and business scene, a compact and walkable downtown and excellent access to highways.

It is also a breeding ground for new and innovative businesses, but on the downside, many of them find it a struggle to thrive. While Gray, like Kezer, said he wants to grow Amesbury’s economic base, something needs to be done to make the economic environment more healthy. Perhaps this is an area where volunteer marketing can help.

If these positives can be emphasized, the city’s local economy can be improved, and the three issues Gray outlined in his speech can be addressed, Amesbury will see the renaissance that so many feel it is poised to accomplish.