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Kate O’Connor: Encouraged to run, looking to make a contribution

BRATTLEBORO—Kate O’Connor remembers hanging holiday lights on Main Street with other volunteers when a passerby cemented for her the importance of contributing to the town she loves.

Instead of asking what he could do to help, or offering to donate a wreath, the man complained about some aspect of gussying the place up, O’Connor recalls.

“The town is the people who live in it,” she said thinking back to that day. “I can’t sit here and complain about something and not make an effort to fix it.”

That’s why she is running for the three-year seat on the Selectboard that is being vacated by Dora Bouboulis. She will face Ben “Spoon” Agave in the March 5 election.

For most of O’Connor’s political life, she’s been in the role of loyal assistant. She served as an advisor to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean from the time he assumed office in 1991 to his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

O’Connor, who grew up in Brattleboro, said it was nice to have others’ support to serve the town she loves. She also grew up watching her parents, former House Speaker and longtime Town Moderator Tim O’Connor and former Selectboard member Martha O’Connor, make their mark in town and state politics.

Kate O’Connor ran last year in the Windham-2-3 district for one of Brattleboro’s three House seats. She narrowly lost to Tristan Toleno.

“I want to make a contribution to the town,” O’Connor said of her Selectboard bid. “I was encouraged by a lot of people to run.”

Brattleboro enjoys great people, businesses, and a wonderful downtown, she said. “We have our challenges and I want to help make a contribution to work towards a solution.”

O’Connor has served on multiple boards. She is the vice-president of the Building a Better Brattleboro board of directors and the state Community Development Block Grant board (CDBG).

She said she understands how board governance works. Although she claims to have many opinions on issues, O’Connor prefers to take a collaborative approach to problem-solving and listening before speaking.

Serving on the governor-appointed CDBG board has interested O’Connor. Communities submit proposals for the state-managed federal funds. O’Connor said the proposals reflect interesting activities and insights into creative solutions. But there’s not enough money for all the proposals — and this is where O’Connor and other board members make tough choices.

Building a Better Brattleboro has weathered some tough things lately, she said.

BaBB, the downtown organization, appeared before the Selectboard multiple times in late 2012 and earlier this year before the board approved its budget. BaBB’s board also made drastic changes to the budget and its operation by stating its plan to divest itself of the River Garden and cut the full-time executive director’s position to 18 hours a week.

O’Connor said she and BaBB board members made their decisions knowing it would lead to upset for some community members. But, sometimes hard decisions have to be made and O’Connor said she’s willing to put in the work.

Hometown roots

O’Connor said she understands her home community.

“I want to do this [serve on the board] because I’m committed to the town and the people here,” she said.

She described herself as pragmatic, civil, and reasonable. People won’t always agree with her decisions, she said, adding that she respects that.

If elected, O’Connor plans to focus on the question of Brattleboro’s affordability.

“Can people afford to live here?” she said rhetorically, adding the Selectboard and community must solve the town’s economic challenges together.

She wants to find a way to lower the town’s taxes, knowing the issue has no simple solution. Cutting the budget is not the only solution, O’Connor adds. When cutting funding, a board must consider the end result.

According to O’Connor, the town needs to take a short and long view to its economic development.

“Brattleboro is not an island,” she said.

The town has wonderful small businesses that have survived all the ups and downs, she said. The first step for economic growth is supporting the business owners and employees here so they can grow here and generate revenue.

In O’Connor’s opinion, people live in Brattleboro because of of its special quality of life. If someone has chosen Brattleboro, the decision should be honored with support.

New sources of revenue may prove harder to find, she said.

O’Connor said she knew some people in town wanted to approach Montpelier to allow for more local option taxes, such as a gasoline tax.

Put everything on the table, she said, but know that the state won’t move quickly.

Instead of waiting on the big wheels of state government to turn, O’Connor would like Brattleboro to team with other communities and find solutions or lobby Montpelier.

Voters have voiced some concerns to O’Connor. Comments she hears the most center on the Robert H. Gibson River Garden’s future, the skate park at the Crowell Lot, the $14.1 million upgrades to the town’s two fire stations and police station, and pedestrian and bike safety.

Without hesitating, O’Connor said she supported the fire and police station upgrades.

She said coming around to supporting the skatepark took longer.

“No, no, no,” was O’Connor’s immediate reaction to news the town eyed placing a skateboard park in the Crowell Lot on Western Avenue. She had visions of the park she played in as a child now paved over.

So, O’Connor attended design meetings and went on a site visit.

“I came around,” she said.

The “not cookie-cutter design” tailored to the town and attempts to make the space multigenerational impressed O’Connor. “I just think it can be a great community resource,” she said.

When asked about how the board could better engage the citizenry, O’Connor said she didn’t believe townspeople here were apathetic, just very busy.

Although she wanted to think about the solution, O’Connor said the board would have to find a way of better fitting into people’s everyday, busy lives.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #192 (Wednesday, February 27, 2013).

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