HOLDEN, Mass. — TheDailyHolden.com will be profiling the candidates for Holden's contested races for the town's local election. On May 14, voters will head to the polls to decide which two candidates will take seats on the Board of Selectmen, with Mark Ferguson, Jeremy Kurtz, and incumbents Ken O'Brien and Anthony Renzoni vying for the contested spots.
For seven years, Ken O'Brien has been a strong supporter of the schools and an advocate for the needs of residents in town, and now the incumbent selectman hopes to bring his experience to the board and continue working collaboratively to solve the issues which face Holden.
Eight years ago, O'Brien was initially drawn into the race for a seat on the board because he wanted to address education issues, and today he continues to feel strongly about the role schools play in the community.
"One of the important issues for me is the school system and having adequate supports for education in town, and I think that one of the things that that requires is that you have a real solid working knowledge of the finances of the town," said O'Brien. "I've really invested myself in understanding the history of the finances of the town, and then to try to apply the principle of fairness into that equation."
While O'Brien said there is often a perception that the selectmen's role is to defend the municipal budget, he emphasized the importance of looking at all the services in town as a whole, including the schools.
"Schools are a vitally important service that we provide, and we have to make sure that we do that well," said O'Brien. "Schools are the primary reasons people come out to Holden to live, and to the Wachusett region. But I really feel like we've had a lot of contentiousness, and we really need leaders who are going to not be contentious and not want to fight — but instead try to bring people together to meet all the needs and balance all the needs."
This has been easier said than done, given the polarizing nature of the issue, but while O'Brien recognized how tricky it can be, he has "tried to just be a level-head and make sure that I talk about solutions and not try and alienate anyone from the discussion."
In fact, for O'Brien, one of the things that he's learned is that to be an effective selectman, "you have to really invest yourself into being restrained," he said, adding, "I think I've changed a lot in that respect."
Though he admits that in his early years on the board he could be confrontational, as he "really wanted to get more spending for the schools," since then he has "learned over time that it was probably not the best way to approach those problems," and that "it's much better to try to bring people together and educate them about where we spend our resources and why one solution might be better than another."
Now he hopes to focus on more productive discussions and relationships with fellow board members.
"I've realized I have one vote out of five, and I'm only a small cog in the wheel, but the most effective thing is to educate people about what we're spending," he said.
"That's one of the reasons I think people should vote for me, because one of the things they can count on me to be is somebody that's conciliatory and tries to bring people together," O'Brien added. "I've really enjoyed this year more than any other year serving as selectman, because we have five people that really aren't strong egos. We can all agree to disagree on whatever issue it is, while in years past we have had some strong personalities, and it was very difficult to disagree. But I think we're in a place now where we have a really good group of selectmen that are smart and articulate."
Thinking back over his years on the board, O'Brien found his participation in reaching out to residents about the Public Safety Building project to be one of the most rewarding experiences.
"I realized at that stage of the game that I could have a big impact on issues if I really invested myself in things and made the case to people," he said.
"One of the things that I think is a real asset that I bring to the table is that I'm self-employed," said O'Brien. "I've been self-employed for 23 years, and it gives me a unique perspective on municipal government and the way we spend money. It's colored my approach to capital investments and spending on capital items."
While O'Brien says he has been one of the strongest opponents of excessive capital spending at times, he says he has also been very supportive of making the adequate investments when they are needed.
"I bring a real knowledge of how we spend money in town to the table," he said, explaining that while people might get the idea that he's a tax and spend liberal, he plans on being "fairly conservative when it comes to spending money."
Furthermore, with the big investments that the town will have to make in the next few years, like the Mountview Middle School project and "A DPW building that we're going to have to start talking about undertaking," O'Brien says Holden will need strong leaders to advocate and "educate the people about why we need to do some of these things, and the value of making these types of investments even though it does affect how much people have to pay to live here."
O'Brien said that another important aspect of being a leader in the community is to encourage involvement and volunteering in town government.
"Because we really rely on the human resources of the people in town to staff our boards and committees, and you really have to be someone that embraces people's efforts and encourages people to participate," he said. "We've been fortunate that we've had a lot of good people participate, and I'd like to think that I've been a positive force in encouraging that."
For more from TheDailyHolden's interview with Ken O'Brien, click the link to see the video.