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Voters to decide changes in city, town operations

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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Amesbury would officially call itself a city, Methuen would drop its term limits rule, and Newburyport would lengthen its mayoral term to four years under proposed charter changes set to go before voters next month.

Charter proposals are also on tap in Everett, where voters will consider replacing the city’s two-branch legislature with a single body and extending the mayoral term to four years, and in Winthrop, where voters will decide, among other changes, whether to extend the power of the Town Council to confirm appointments.

The proposed charter changes will be on the ballots in the Nov. 8 municipal elections.

The proposal in Amesbury would replace the charter language referring to the community as “the city known as the town of Amesbury’’ with “the city of Amesbury.’’

All other references to the “town’’ would be changed to “city.’’

Those and other charter revisions were proposed by Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III based on recommendations from a charter review panel.

Kezer said Amesbury adopted its charter establishing a city form of government in 1996. He said the name change would simply reflect that reality.

“It doesn’t make us officially a city because we are already officially a city. It just properly identifies us as a city form of government,’’ he said. “It will help us when we are dealing on the state and federal level with officials and agencies because cities get more access and more attention. So it will give us a competitive edge.’’

Other proposed changes include revisions to the process of filling mayoral and municipal council vacancies.

Ted Semesnyei, who is challenging Kezer for mayor in next month’s election, opposes the charter changes in part because he does not favor having Amesbury refer to itself as a city.

“It’s a unique aspect of the community to have this name, ’the town of Amesbury,’ ’’ he said. “It’s such a small community in terms of size and population. It has a small feel to it, and a lot of people like that.’’

Semesnyei said he also believes the other proposed changes have not been adequately explained to voters.

In Methuen, the elimination of term limits is part of a package of charter revisions that was proposed on a 5-4 vote by an elected charter commission.

In the 1993 charter establishing its city form of government, Methuen placed a lifetime limit of three terms for the mayor and City Council members. About four years later, the limit was extended to other elected offices, but modified to allow those who reach the three-term limit to run again for the same office after waiting two years.

A former mayor in Methuen, Dennis DiZoglio, who voted in favor of the charter plan, noted that Methuen and Lawrence are the only two Massachusetts communities with term limits.

“The concern I have . . . is that it suggests you can’t trust the people, that you can’t trust the citizens of Methuen to make decisions, that you have to limit their choices,’’ DiZoglio said in explaining his opposition to term limits. “Our feeling is that we trust citizens to make the decision - yes or no - if they want someone to stay in office or not.’’

But Joseph Pappalardo, the commission’s chairman, voted against the charter package because he favors keeping term limits.

“In Methuen, we have a lot of career politicians, people who want to stay in office. They have name recognition, they have organizations behind them. We feel we do not need career politicians. It’s like farmers do when they rotate their crops; give someone new a chance.’’

The other proposed changes in Methuen include requirements that the City Council establish budget, finance, and personnel committees.

The charter changes in Newburyport were proposed on a 6-3 vote by a charter commission elected in 2009.

School Committee member Steven P. Cole, the commission’s chairman, said a survey of residents conducted by the group found strong support for a four-year mayoral term.

“They really want stability in that office,’’ he said of residents, noting the view expressed in the survey that a two-year term leaves little time for new mayors to develop their initiatives before having to run again.

“One of the issues in Newburyport is that we’ve had a few long-term problems we haven’t been able to solve, such as development on the waterfront,’’ Cole said. “If we had a four-year mayor in place, it would provide stability and leadership to get through some of these difficult problems.’’

But commission member Denis Kennedy voted against the charter package because he opposes the longer term for mayor.

“A city the size of Newburyport does not need a four-year term,’’ he said. “A two-year term gives a chance for voters to validate a mayor’s performance on a regular basis.’’ Kennedy said he rejected the notion that it is difficult for a mayor to handle the job’s duties while campaigning for reelection.

And, he said, with a four-year term, “You could lock the city into a commitment to a candidate who might not work out,’’ noting that the city’s charter has no recall provision.

The other charter proposals in Newburyport include requiring creation of the positions of finance director and director of human resources, according to Cole.

In Winthrop, the charter proposals were broken down into five ballot questions by the Town Council based on a report by its Rules and Ordinance Committee, which had acted on recommendations of a charter review panel.

Among the changes is a measure extending the current requirement that the council vote whether to confirm the town manager’s appointments of the police and fire chiefs to apply to the appointments of all department heads.