City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua and voters who supported him in this month's election want him chosen council president because he was the top vote-getter in the election.
The council traditionally picks the top vote-getter as president, but some councilors are hedging on whether Bevilacqua will get their support for the post.
Bevilacqua's supporters are organizing a move to pressure councilors to make him president. This week they held a rally at Battle Grounds Coffee Co. on Washington Street.
Bevilacqua said he should become president based on council tradition and the will of the voters who made him top vote-getter in the election.
"The top vote-getter from the last several terms of John Michitson all the way back to George Winfield, decades ago, has traditionally been voted president, at least for their first term," Bevilacqua said.
Bevilacqua, who was listed first on the ballot, said that on election night in early November he heard that other councilors were plotting to keep him from becoming president.
"I subsequently spoke to four councilors about this," he said. "One of them told me I campaign too hard, one told me I make them take tough votes, a third told me I don't go along with the council, while another told me the council would punish me and not elect me president," he said.
Bevilacqua said another councilor told him they were remaining neutral on the issue, while another had nothing to say.
"Two of them never called me back," he said.
Bevilacqua is not popular with other councilors — they have criticized him for being long-winded and sometimes off-topic at meetings; for attempting to put items on the agenda that are unclear, thereby violating open meeting laws; for making statements that he is the only one looking out for the public good; and for blaming the council for voting a certain way on issues such as allowing retail marijuana shops in the city.
Bevilacqua opposed marijuana shops even though a majority of Haverhill voters — about 55 percent — favored the shops. Because the retail sale of marijuana was approved by voters statewide, the state ordered that Haverhill provide reasonable opportunities for the location of marijuana shops. Bevilacqua refused to accept the state mandate.
Bevilacqua said voters who propelled him to finishing first in the council race expect he will become council president.
"This is not about me. This is about respecting the will of the voters," he said. "Voters are speaking out as they are pretty upset and feel that councilors have turned their backs on voters."
Bevilacqua said that since he was first elected to the council, he's voted each year for the top vote-getter to become council president, and that happened to be John Michitson for each of the past three years.
"There's never been a question or discussion about voting for the top vote-recipient as president," Bevilacqua said.
The council is expected to vote on a new president on inauguration day, Jan. 6.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan said it is clear in his mind who he wants to support — but stopped short of naming that person.
"My decision will be finalized on Jan. 6," he said.
Councilor William Macek said he spoke to Bevilacqua and Mayor James Fiorentini after the election, when both asked who Macek planned to support as council president.
"I told them I'm undecided, that I won't get involved in a dog fight and that I'm not lobbying for anyone," he said. "I have not made up my mind as to who to support."
Macek said the council's rules say that at the first meeting in January, in this case inauguration day, the nine councilors must choose a president and vice president. There is no mention in the rules about the number of votes a councilor received in the last election affecting the issue, Macek said.
"Choosing the top vote-getter is a tradition, but it's not in the council rules," Macek said.
Macek noted that when David Hall was elected to the council and was top vote-getter, he bowed out from the presidency because he tended to put many items on the meeting agenda and didn't want to be restricted from that as president. Macek said the councilor who is named president has to give up the gavel at meetings to the vice president in order speak on their agenda items.
"Whether it's Joe or any other councilor, being president means you need to be the parliamentarian and not involve yourself as the rest of the council does on items that are before the council," Macek said.
Macek said it his understanding that Bevilacqua wants to be president and is not interested in being vice president.
"If Joe is not able to gain the support of the council, the next person in line is Melinda Barrett, and from a standpoint of tradition, it is the logical choice," he said. Barrett finished third in the election behind Bevilacqua and Michitson, who said he does not want to be president in the coming term.
"I'm not living in a vacuum either as I hear what's being said," Macek added. "To the best of my knowledge, there has not been any effort of five or more city councilors getting together to conspire against Bevilacqua. If five or more did get together without posting it (notifying the public of such a meeting), then it would violate the Open Meeting Law."
Michitson, the current council president, said he will not seek reelection to that post.
"I’m looking forward to having more quality time to delve deeper into our most chronic problems — public safety, economic development, education and keeping up with and improving our infrastructure," he said.
Michitson said it is common for the top vote-getter from the previous election to negotiate with other councilors when seeking the presidency.
"That includes committee leadership and other issues important to each councilor," he said, adding that in choosing a president, councilors trust that person will be fair to all council members.
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien said this will be her 19th time voting for council president, as she enters her 10th two-year term on the council. The group chooses a president each year.
"I think the controversy is being created by Joe," she said. "Although he has reached out to me to ask for my support, I will work with the council to elect a president we can all support. It's a group decision, not an individual decision."
Daly O'Brien said that it's not unusual for top vote-getters to contact other councilors to ask for their support.
"But I've never heard of anyone going public with it," she said.
Councilor Tim Jordan said he will not be influenced by Bevilacqua openly seeking the council's top spot.
"He called me and emailed me as he did to other councilors to lobby for the job of council president," Jordan said. "I did receive an email from a constituent who was advocating for Joe.''
Jordan said he's also heard from voters who told him they don't want Bevilacqua to be council president.
"There's nothing in our statute that says the top vote-getter has to be elected council president by city councilors," Jordan said. "Where people finished in the election is one factor I'll use in making my decision, and the other factor is who I believe will do a good job running our council meetings."