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The Yankee Express

Battle lines drawn in special election for Oxford selectman’s seat

Robert J. King: Bring back public forums.

By Rod Lee
The choice for Oxford voters in the special election coming up on November 16 is not just between a relative newcomer to town (Robert J. King) and a lifelong resident (Norman Leblanc Jr.). It rests as well with differences between the two men on key issues facing the community.
They are running for the seat on the Board of Selectmen previously held by the late Anthony Saad.
  For his part in recent interviews the candidates gave to the Oxford Democratic Town Committee, Mr. King said he was originally from New Jersey and that he attended high school in Pennsylvania, served in the Navy and took up a career in lasers and fiber optics that led to a job with IPG and “a move to Oxford to set down roots.
“I had never heard of a Town Meeting form of government” before relocating to Massachusetts, he said. “Some negative experiences” piqued his interest in getting involved in politics and specifically the Board of Selectmen.

 Norman L. Leblanc Jr.: “Why not robo calls?” to keep Oxford residents better informed.

Mr. Leblanc told the Democratic Town Committee that he is a third-generation resident of Oxford. “I owe the town a lot,” he said. He has coached, been active in scouting, served on the Housing Authority, was involved in the Liberty Heights program, sat on the ZBA for twelve years “and the Planning Board for the last fifteen years—the most important board in town for planning.” The Planning Board “has no issues,” he said. “It’s never been sued.”
His parents taught him “to give back,” Mr. Leblanc said.
Although they fielded questions on a wide range of topics, the candidates identified the relationship between Town Manager Jenifer Callahan and the Board of Selectmen as “the most pressing.”
Mr. King said “we have to be ready to build consensus; there is a perception that certain things can’t be brought into meetings. I will push for bringing back the public comment period. The Board had that for a long time.”
Mr. Leblanc lamented the “lack of communication” between selectmen and the town manager and added “citizens, the Board of Selectmen and the town manager is the right chain of command.” Further, “the Board of Selectmen needs to give the town manager goals and meet with her at least quarterly.”
Mr. King and Mr. Leblanc were not in agreement on everything.
On a query about a “debt exclusion for roads” that will be voted on soon, Mr. King said “we could account for a lot” of the money needed “with free cash. It’s not the right time for a debt exclusion but I like the DPW plan.” In sharp contrast, Mr. Leblanc said “I am 100 percent in favor of it. It’s more reasonable than the previous attempt.”
  A light moment was struck when the subject of “healing tensions in town” came up and Mr. Leblanc said “I think I’d send them all to Dr. Phil” before getting more serious and saying “I would set an example. I’m a straight shooter. I vote on what’s best for the town.” Mr. King’s stance on the same subject was “hear people out. Don’t be quick to make judgments. Educate residents on town plans and projects (he applauded the recently released town newsletter Onward Oxford!). Hold forums. Big things take consensus.”
Mr. King was more critical of the town manager than his opponent, asserting that even though Ms. Callahan is “now living in town,” she is “too combative” and “needs a thicker skin.” On the other side, “the town manager feels she is not given specific goals and priorities,” he said.
On the matter of the town’s “financial stability,” Mr. King said the amount of free cash “looks great” but raised the question “where to put it,” and said the town needs to “bring in more business.” He noted too that “a lot of residents are upset with the current tax rate.”
Mr. Leblanc had a number of recommendations relating to financial stability. “Continue to apply for grants,” he said. “We need to improve our bond rating. Continue to build up free cash and spend it wisely. Do a better job of funding capital programs.” Although the town has obtained more than $13 million in grants over the past several years, when “the new high school roof started leaking, we did nothing.”
Mr. Leblanc stressed the importance of the ten-year master plan, and pointed to the Ashworth Hills condos and commercial project, which will be owner-occupied, as a positive.
In an email following the Q&A, Mr. King said “I believe the major differences between myself and Norman can be summed up as a large difference in perspective.”
A selectman, Mr. King said, “needs to be reaching out in the community, meeting residents and finding out how they want the issues before the town to be addressed (a good example, recent crosswalk islands installed in Main St. with no resident forum, [and] approving funds to plan a redesign of Main St. with no prior resident forums on the topic.
“Norman seems to believe that he is already familiar with the issues in town and does not need resident input on them based on his decades of experience on various town boards. This is why I have spent months going door to door speaking to residents, writing them letters, have a campaign website, provide telephone and email contact information, and Norman has not and does not. Norman has seen many selectmen come and go and how they campaigned whereas I am a newcomer to town politics looking to use 21st Century tools to personally reach and interact with more voters than ever before.”
Elaborating on what separates the two men, Mr. King said “Norman states that future large-scale development is required for the financial stability of the town. My view is that past promises of large-scale development mitigating tax increases is no longer credible with many voters and that we need to rebuild their trust and engage them in a positive way by addressing their priorities. The residents have generously accepted the tax increases up to this point and if that is not shown to be appreciated we run the risk of future budgets and requests not being approved.”
Mr. Leblanc’s “perspective as someone who has been a part of town government for decades is that things have been done basically ‘right,’ whereas my perspective is that some things have not and need to be improved. This is on full display in our answers to the 40B (affordable housing) question. My view is that the town needs to be familiar with and use the regulatory tools in 40B to be in compliance so that future development conforms to town zoning (which the town has had decades to do and has not done yet). Norman seems to believe that the town has done a good job blocking projects, but some will just inevitably happen.”
Mr. King casts himself as “an outsider opposed by Board of Selectmen Chair (Dennis) Lemarche” while Mr. Leblanc “has a long history” with Mr. Lemarche “and his campaign is supported by him.”
In a telephone conversation the morning of October 29, Norman Leblanc took issue with much of what Robert King said.
For one thing, “I have received a lot of resident input on the boards I have served on,” Mr. Leblanc said, so he is not out of touch with residents as Mr. King implied. “I have worked with them and listened to what they say.”
  In regard to the Main St. redesign, “it will be least five to six months before we do anything with Main St., not even twenty-five percent of the design work has been done,” Mr. Leblanc said.
Mr. Leblanc noted too that even though he is a lifelong resident “this is my first time running for public office. I have always been a volunteer with people on local boards and a problem solver.”
Also, “I never said anything about blocking projects and I have the support of a lot of business people.”
On 40B, “there are state mandates we have to follow,” Mr. Leblanc said, “but I am opposed to it.”
Both men emphasized the need for better communication between Town Hall and residents.
  But Mr. Leblanc questioned where Mr. King is getting his information from.
  “The only conversation I’ve had with him, I wished him luck,” he said. 
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.