, Newburyport, MA

November 8, 2013

Our view: In Amesbury, a hard road lies ahead

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s been a long time since we have seen anything remotely like the chaotic election aftermath that is playing out right now in Amesbury. Mayor-elect Ken Gray’s razor-thin margin of victory over Mayor Thatcher Kezer, and the expected recount, have ignited a whirlwind of anger and accusations between activists on both sides of this political split.

It’s raw emotion right now, ramping up in intensity with each back-and-forth between the two camps. Much of it is fueled by Facebook posts that trade accusations, rumors, wrong information and vitriol.

History is a valuable teacher, and Amesbury residents should recall how the political chaos of the 2005 election rent the town in two and made it a laughingstock throughout the region. The political anger translated into outrageous behavior that only served to stagnate the city, if not damage it.

Calmer heads need to prevail so that this process can play out professionally and completely. Amesbury’s residents and officials should strive to honor the legal and traditional expectations of the post-election period.

It will be the biggest and hardest test of a politically divided city, but it needs to happen in order to set the right path toward governing a city where neither side holds the high ground.

Kezer plans to file for a vote recount; Gray has asked that Kezer accept the results and move on. Gray thinks a continuation of the election controversy will only lead to more chaos. The events of the past few days have proven Gray right, but Kezer is entitled legally to a recount, and certainly owes it to his supporters to exhaust the remedies he is allowed to take. The recount is a process that needs to happen.

In the meantime, Gray is pushing forward with his transition-to-office plan, and hopes for Kezer’s cooperation. Gray has every right to begin the transition as the mayor-elect. City officials should cooperate with him, respecting the will of the voters.

Neither side is going to like cooperating, but it does need to happen, for the longterm good of Amesbury. That sense of decorum and professionalism should also spread to interactions between the two camps, particularly in social media.

Facebook has shown its true colors in this election, and they can be ugly. Social media has been one of the most profound recent changes in our society. Never before have people been able to interact on such a broad and yet personal scale. But it’s not a natural and normal way of relating. The social norms that we experience in face-to-face encounters are blown out the window. It’s easy, and enticing, to treat one another badly, and to ripple the nastiness to thousands of people.

Amesbury’s election clearly tells us one thing — neither side scored a decisive victory. As we tally the winners and losers, both sides can claim victories and defeats, in almost equal measure. Similar to what happened in 2005, one side controls the mayor’s office, while the other holds what appears to be a slim majority in the City Council.

Complicating matters is the fate of a possible swing vote on the City Council. Mary Bartley, a Gray supporter, beat former councilor and Kezer supporter Mary Chatigny in a write-in contest for District 2 councilor. But a technicality in the City Charter has resulted in both women losing. Instead, the City Council will decide who gets that seat. This will add yet another layer of partisan politics to the election fallout.

Amesbury is in for some hard political times in the near future. Anger, remorse, defeat, excitement and victory — they can lead to extreme reactions, the type Amesbury experienced in 2006-2007.

The trick will be for both sides of the political divide to acknowledge that neither holds the absolute “will of the people.” They’ll have to work together to move the city in a positive direction.

There are overlaps that unite them — like reducing class sizes in the schools, bringing in more economic development and finding ways to tamp down costs. They should identify areas of common ground and work to achieve them, and recognize that third-rail issues should be left for future consideration.

Maybe a divided Amesbury can teach a divided Washington how Americans find the greater good and work together to achieve it.