For the first time in nearly 30 years, the mayor of Newburyport is running for reelection unopposed, causing many armchair pundits to voice concern that voter turnout for Tuesday’s election will be low, despite the fact that the outcome will shape local government and influence downtown development for years to come.
For the first time in nearly a century, voters will weigh changes to the city’s charter. Voters will consider approving a proposed charter that would double the mayoral term to four years and strengthen the chief executive’s powers. Under the proposal, the mayor would be able to suspend or terminate department heads without City Council approval.
A divided charter commission, elected in 2009 to examine all aspects of local government in Newburyport, put the proposed changes to the charter on the Nov. 8 ballot with a 6-3 vote.
School Committee member Steven P. Cole, chairman of the charter commission, said the group proposed a four-year mayoral term because residents had repeatedly voiced a desire for stability in the corner office, both in public meetings and in a 2010 resident survey.
Councilor at Large Ari Herzog, a candidate for reelection, was among them.
“Serving on the City Council today, it’s clear to me that it is very hard for any elected official to accomplish anything significant in two years,’’ said Herzog, who is now serving his first term on the council. “The first six months are spent finding the bathroom and the last six months are spent on reelection efforts.’’
Under the proposed charter, the city’s chief executive would not only get a longer term in office; the mayor would also get a bump in pay - to a minimum of $98,000 a year beginning in 2014, up from $80,000.
The added pay would come with added responsibility: The mayor would be “required to devote full time to the position and would be prohibited from holding any other paid employment or city office.’’
The original charter, adopted in 1851, was last substantially modified in 1919. The other changes outlined in the proposed charter include requiring creation of the positions of finance director and director of human resources, and barring anyone with a felony conviction from holding public office.
Copies of the proposed charter were mailed to residents the last week of October to remind them of the upcoming ballot question. Up until that time, the election had gotten little buzz in this historic seaport, in part because Mayor Donna D. Holaday, who is completing her first term in office, is running unopposed.
In a city that has had six mayors in the past 13 years, many voters cannot recall a time when a mayor ran for reelection without challenge.
“I think she’s running unopposed because people think she’s doing a good job,’’ said Ward 4 Councilor Edward C. Cameron, who is one of eight candidates competing for five at-large council seats. “The mayor and all of the candidates for ward council seats are running unopposed. It’s very unusual and, I think, will contribute to a low voter turnout.’’
The last time a mayor ran unopposed was “in the early 1980s,’’ according to City Clerk Richard B. Jones. “Richard Sullivan was mayor.’’ Sullivan served as Newburyport’s mayor from 1978 to 1985.
His son, Richard Sullivan Jr., is following a family tradition of public service and running against Herzog and Cameron for an at-large council seat. Rounding out the competition are incumbents Kathleen O’Connor Ives, Steven R. Hutcheson, and Barry N. Connell, and newcomers Larry G. Giunta Jr. and Michael J. Early.
Meanwhile, the candidates for the city’s six wards, or neighborhood seats, are running unopposed. They are: Ward 1 Councilor Allison Heartquist, Ward 2 Councilor Gregory Earls, Ward 3 Councilor Robert Cronin, Ward 5 Councilor Thomas O’Brien, and Ward 6 Councilor Brian Derrivan. Councilor at Large Tom Jones is also running unopposed for the Ward 4 council seat being vacated by Cameron.
In the separate School Committee race, four candidates are campaigning for three available school board seats. Incumbents Nicholas B. deKanter and Bruce M. Menin face challengers Audrey G. McCarthy, a former at-large city councilor, and Peter McClure, a teacher and parent.
But as recently as last week, there were few campaign signs to be seen, particularly in the south end of Newburyport, home to wards 1 and 2, an area of the city known for electing liberal candidates. An informal poll of residents by local blogger Mary Baker Eaton revealed that many voters were unaware of the importance of the upcoming election, even though the winners of Tuesday’s ballot contest will help shape the future of downtown Newburyport.
When the new City Council convenes in January, local leaders will weigh a proposal that would create a Local Historic District, which would protect the downtown area and High Street, the principal gateway to Newburyport and the cornerstone of Newburyport’s Historic District. Named an endangered resource by Preservation Massachusetts, High Street dates to the 17th century. From its humble beginnings as a country road, the city’s signature street has evolved into a socially prominent roadway of national renown. It is home to Newburyport’s only National Historic Landmark, the Caleb Cushing House.
If embraced by city leaders, creation of a Local Historic District would protect the exterior appearance of properties along the 2.48-mile High Street and the commercial downtown between Federal and Winter streets to ensure that any planned changes would not detract from the district’s historic character. The intent is to protect historical architecture and encourage new construction compatible with the surrounding buildings.
Two of the at-large council candidates - Sullivan and Giunta - are opposed to the Local Historic District. The others have voiced support for the concept.
“I just think it’s too much,’’ said Sullivan. “I grew up here. Forty years ago, Newburyport looked like a bomb had hit it. A lot of properties had fallen into disrepair. As the years went on, people bought the properties and restored them. We didn’t need a historic district to do that. I don’t think anybody should have the right to tell people what they can do with their property.’’