GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 2, 2008

Kirk takes the helm

Richard Gaines

Mayor Carolyn Kirk used her inaugural address yesterday to announce an “austerity” program that will bring all non-emergency overtime and routine expenses over $100 under her personal control.

Kirk also announced a hiring freeze and gave a packed City Hall auditorium and balcony notice that “it may be necessary to reduce the hours city offices are open to the public.”

Kirk said she is creating and heading a finance team of “appropriate city professionals” committed to getting “a grasp on revenues and expenditures.”

She said it is necessary to “restore” the state’s confidence in the city’s ability to manage its fiscal affairs.

The austerity measures were received with applause, as were later announcements of actions to shake up and modernize the city government.

She made clear doing that requires revitalizing the local economy and said the “essential” place to focus efforts is around the harbor. She promised a new public process and action on a series of ideas that would shrink state control and encourage private investment.

She revealed that the state Department of Revenue told her the city “stopped reporting” its fiscal status in 2005 after producing reports of deficits in the previous two years.

“They wondered if Gloucester is hiding deficits,” Kirk said.

She said she invited the DOR officials to Gloucester this month to see for themselves that the new administration is getting things in order.

She went out of her way not to sugarcoat problems, saying, “We don’t live on easy street, but it’s home” and that the city needs a budget correction that reflects a “harsh reality.”

She reminded the city she would provide a detailed assessment within 100 days.

“By then,” Kirk said, “we will have a clear grasp on Gloucester’s fiscal situation. I will inform you, the taxpayer, the answer to the basic question, where is my money going?”

At the same time, she said she will publish her first budget which “will contain strategic measures for lifting the austerity order.”

In the long mayoral campaign and the five-week transition since she won the job of succeeding three-term Mayor John Bell, Kirk touched on many of the same points. But the assembly of them in her inaugural address amounted to a troubling diagnosis of a city that has financially run amok.

She did not point fingers of blame, nor did she mention by name even once her predecessor.

Bell did not attend the inauguration, but had worked closely with Kirk during the transition. Last week, she described Bell’s efforts at a smooth transition as “gracious.”

At the same time she was pulling no punches about the dire state of the city’s finances and her need to put “Gloucester back on the path to fiscal health,” she reiterated her decision to ask the City Council to borrow the more than $3 million needed to add classrooms to the elementary schools to finish off the yearlong redistricting.

A two-term School Committee member, Kirk declared the need to give stability to the fifth-graders in the “temporary school called the ‘Fuller Fifth.’”

Kirk chose the Fuller Fifth Chorus to sing at the inauguration, which attracted as large an audience to Kyrouz Auditorium as has filled the big old room since the start of the decade. Friends, supporters and family as well as citizens interested in seeing history in the making packed the seats, stood around the windows, milled in the back and stood three rows deep around the balcony.

Historian and author Joseph Garland, invited by Kirk to deliver a keynote speech about the city’s moment in history, encouraged her to keep on with the truth-telling.

“More than ever,” Garland said, “we’ve just got to have genuine, dedicated, studious, straight-up, proactive, absolutely committed, inspired and inspiring leadership.”

He said in needing all that, “Gloucester finally broke the tired-out habit of electing and re-electing us stuck-in-the-mud men to the toughest job in town.”

At 4 p.m. yesterday, she became the city’s second female mayor, the first to be elected by popular vote.

She was accompanied at the swearing in by her husband Bill, business editor for The Eagle Tribune newspaper, her two children, Sam and Baylee, and members of her husband’s family.

She told the Times she was saddened that her father, now in his 80s in her hometown of Clinton, N.Y., was too ill to make the trip to Gloucester.

Sam and Baylee attend East Gloucester Elementary School around the corner from the Kirks’ Highland Avenue home.

She entered the political world from her role as a member of the East Gloucester PTO, which led to a campaign for School Committee and research into the unfairness of the state education funding formula.

The team that she assembled into a forceful mayoral campaign brought a number of new faces to Gloucester politics who energized the inauguration. Her campaign manager, Kristian Hoystradt, a member of Gloucester High School’s Class of 2005, served as the master of ceremonies.

Her review of the wrenching decisions by the School Committee and her proclamation that the children who got caught in the “crossfire of the budget battles” were the first class to enter school after the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 seemed to strike a response chord in the audience.

“This class, and the classes behind them, needs us to shepherd them through the only shot they get at their education,” Kirk said.

The audience cheered when she said she would support Council President Bruce Tobey’s order to consolidate some city and school administrative functions and hire a community development director. The city has been without one for more than two years.

She also said she would reconstitute the Community Development Department as the Office of Economic Planning and Development and begin using federal grants to foster economic development.

She promised to appoint a panel within six months to take public testimony on how to get more economic vitality out of the harbor.

She said she was encouraged by four ideas:

r Rezoning Fort Square, which Kirk said “sits outside the designated port area and thus is within local control, so can be put to its “highest and best use.”

r A proposal by property owners and the Chamber of Commerce to allow them to add recreational slips to their property so long as they also add commercial slips.

r Removing most of the East Gloucester waterfront from the state’s control.

r A proposal by a citizen, Richard Rosenfeld, to encourage mixed use for property along the Inner Harbor.