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Marblehead changes tack

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`When I finished my second term [on council] and handed in my keys to the village hall, I fully anticipated that I would continue to work here at Anchors Away [his marina business in Danbury Township] without the pressures of the political arena,' Joseph Ihnat, Jr., says. `It's amazing how all that can change in a few days.'

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MARBLEHEAD, Ohio - Joseph Ihnat, Jr., says he never wanted to be mayor of Marblehead, but he's enjoying his unexpected promotion so far.

“I stepped into this position about a month ago, and we're still in the honeymoon phase,” he said. “After serving eight years on council, I had a pretty good feel for what was going on.”

A former president pro-tem of village council, Mr. Ihnat, 59, got the job when Mayor Steve Plottner suddenly resigned Jan. 6.

Mr. Ihnat's own term on council was to expire Jan. 10. But instead of retiring and focusing on his marina business, he agreed to stay on as mayor for the next two years. “When I finished my second term and handed in my keys to the village hall, I fully anticipated that I would continue to work here at Anchors Away without the pressures of the political arena,” he said in an interview in his office at the Danbury Township marina.

“It's amazing how all that can change in a few days,” he continued. “I think what's happened to me is a good thing. It's given me a chance to see what I can do as mayor. I'm an optimist. I believe things happen for a reason.”

Mr. Ihnat, a jovial, round-faced man, comes from a family with a history in Marblehead politics. His grandfather, Matt Milne, was a longtime clerk-treasurer in the 1950s and 1960s, and his father, Joseph Ihnat, Sr., served a term on council in the 1960s.

Mr. Ihnat graduated from Danbury High School in 1961, then joined the Navy for four years. While stationed in Scotland, he met his wife, Winnie.

Since his return to the village in 1965, he has worked in the marina business and has been manager and co-owner of Anchors Away for 17 years.

In more than three decades since, he has watched Marblehead become an increasingly popular tourist spot. Tourism, he said, helps support village businesses but places an extra burden on municipal services.

“We rely so heavily on it,” he said. “But the time is coming when the visitors are going to have to help pay their share.”

The debate over how to cover the costs of tourism filled Mr. Plottner's tenure with controversy. In the past two years, villagers overturned a 1 percent income tax and rejected a fee on ferry passengers.

Besides the battles over taxes, Mr. Plottner and his wife, clerk-treasurer Cynthia Plottner, faced a challenge to their status as village residents.

When Mr. Plottner quit, so did his wife. A few days later, Councilman Larry Earls resigned.

Mr. Ihnat and Councilwoman Janet Monak, named as Mrs. Plottner's interim successor, found a myriad of problems with the village's books, including some overdue bills.

Emotions in town remained raw over the income tax, which council reinstated in December, a month after voters defeated the measure. Residents accused village leaders of ignoring their wishes. Calmly, Mr. Ihnat acted to fill the vacancies, straighten out the books, and restore goodwill.

Six weeks into his term, the village has a new clerk-treasurer, Betty Voisard, and a new councilman, Frank Zalar.

At its last meeting Thursday, council agreed to spend up to $6,000 to have an employee from the state auditor's office review the town books and help train Ms. Voisard.

Council repealed the income tax, at Mr. Ihnat's urging. The mayor said the village must figure out its finances, then spell out to residents what it needs to repair roads, buy emergency equipment, and handle other maintenance.

In style, the new mayor has presented a sharp contrast to his predecessor. Where Mr. Plottner was serious and intense, Mr. Ihnat jokes during council meetings and invites audience members to speak up whenever they want.

That's a break from council's previous policy, which required citizens to wait until a public comment period near the end of the monthly meetings.

“If you have a question about something, or a comment, raise your hand,” the mayor told residents at Thursday's meeting in the village fire hall. “You don't have to wait until the public comment period to speak up. I never did like that rule, and so I'm making that change.”

John Starcher, who was elected to council in November, said the new atmosphere at the town hall has been a welcome change.

“I think things like that are going to make a difference with the public,” said Mr. Starcher, who opposed the ferry and income taxes. “If he keeps that up, I think he's not going to have trouble gaining the confidence of the voting public.”

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