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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Speaker of the House William O'Brien of Mont Vernon at the State House recently.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Bill O'Brien's Mont Vernon's home.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Neighbors say speaker is friendly, can be headstrong

Controversial House Speaker William O’Brien isn’t known around his home town for squealing the tires in his Mercedes convertible or pushing his weight around to get what he wants.

By most accounts, O’Brien is described by neighbors and acquaintances as a friendly, but focused, man who finds refuge in his hilltop home in Mont Vernon.

O’Brien, who has divided lawmakers and residents alike since he took the speaker’s chair, first came to the Souhegan Valley in 1985. He arrived in Mont Vernon 15 years later, and he has been an active member of the community since, neighbors said over the last month.

To this day, O’Brien, 60, can be seen around the bedroom town, picking up groceries, collecting mail and walking around his leisurely, rural neighborhood.

“You see him around, but it’s more just like a neighbor. He keeps a low profile,” said Kristin O’Brien, owner of Fishbones General Store in town.

But, before he joined the legislature, O’Brien began his reign of public service on the town school board, showing signs of the headstrong, sometimes divisive leader he would become, according to former colleagues.

“I felt that many of our meetings were a chess game, trying to force positions one way or the other,” said Peter King, who often clashed with O’Brien as chair of the school board.

Others were more pointed with their words.

“What he is bringing to bear now in the state Legislature is exactly what he brought to bear in Mont Vernon,” added Jayson Darula, who followed O’Brien on the board. “It’s an ongoing and relentless assault on public education.”

‘Wonderful neighbors’

A longtime Massachusetts resident, O’Brien, and his wife Roxanne moved to New Hampshire in 1985, buying a home in Amherst. But the couple didn’t become full-time Granite State residents until years later.

As a successful attorney with a Boston practice, O’Brien spent his days and many of his nights in the Bay State. In addition to their home on Buckridge Drive in Amherst, the couple, who were raising two daughters and a younger son, tried living in the Massachusetts towns of Marblehead and Weston, and O’Brien kept an apartment for a time in Boston’s South End, he said in a recent interview.

After years of commuting, O’Brien sold his share of the law practice, and signed on as legal counsel for Availant Corp. and Nixdorf, software development firms in Massachusetts.

The new positions cut down on his commute.

Judith Sortino, an Amherst resident who lived next door to the O’Briens on Winterberry Drive, recalls the family as friendly and helpful.

When Sortino locked herself out of her home, O’Brien was quick to invite her in and host until her husband arrived home, she said, and on more than one occasion, the couple hosted neighbors for a community gathering at their home.

“We had a very close-knit, friendly neighborhood. They were a part of it,” said Sortino, who recalls attending a birthday party for Roxanne, complete with a folk singer, at the O’Briens’ home. “Everyone was on good terms with everyone.”

After 15 years in Amherst, the O’Briens moved over the town line to Mont Vernon in 1999, buying a home on Southview Drive, a small cul de sac off Wilson Hill Road.

The development was built when Mont Vernon was beginning a two-decade housing boom that took it from Amherst’s poor, smaller sibling to a well-off “exurb” filled with professionals commuting to Nashua and Boston from new, large homes. For several years during the housing boom, Mont Vernon had the Nashua region’s highest average sales price for new homes.

The house, a two-story colonial, had been built five years earlier at a cost of about $208,000. It has a fine view from the edge of a hill, looking toward Boston.

The O’Briens bought the home and 3.6-acre plot in 1999 for $278,000, according to town records. In the years since, they’ve added a barn and a rear deck to the 2,400-square-foot house, and in 2010, they applied for a permit to construct an addition over a first-floor sun room.

In 2009, the last year data was available, the house was assessed at $172,000, according to town records – but it’s market value is closer to $273,000.

“They’ve done a beautiful job with the property,” said Karen Lautenschlager, who has lived next door since the O’Briens moved to town. “They seem to really like the house. … They’re wonderful neighbors.”

Low-spending agenda

When they came to town, O’Brien never mentioned any political ambitions, colleagues and neighbors said. But in 1999, he left the law firm in Boston, and with more time on his hands, he inquired about running for the school board.

O’Brien’s two adult daughters were out of the house but his son, Brendan, was at the Mount Vernon Village School at the time, so he called upon Robert Kent, who served as chairman of the school board at the time, to explore a run.

“He said he was thinking of getting involved and asked me what I thought,” Kent said. “I was glad he did.”

O’Brien, who eventually sent his son to attend Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, lost in his first run for the school board, placing third in 2001 in the race for two open seats. His second time out, in 2002, he took Kent’s spot after he retired from the board.

Over the next several years, O’Brien brought a serious, sometimes contentious, voice to the board, members said. He rarely, if ever, missed a meeting, and he always came well prepared to lobby for his positions, according to board members and school administrators alike.

“He … knew what he was talking about when he was talking about education. … He took it very seriously,” said Robert St. Cyr, who served as principal of the Mont Vernon Village School during O’Brien’s first term.

On the school board, like at the Statehouse, much of O’Brien’s energy focused on monitoring school spending. Meetings often grew contentious as he questioned what he believed to be excess spending, board members said, and he voted on several occasions against the town’s budget proposals.

“Bill would go to the root cause.” said Tim Allen, who often sided with O’Brien in the board’s disputes. “He would ask ‘what’s causing the problem?’ and then he’d say, ‘let’s fix the cause, not just throw money at it.’”

Other board members saw O’Brien as a more divisive figure who used subversive tactics, similar to those he is accused of using now at the Statehouse, to support his low-spending agenda.

Even in the final stages of the budget process, after board members had finalized their spending proposal, O’Brien would often propose further cuts at the last minute without regard to the effect on students, according to Peter King, who chaired the board at the time.

According to Telegraph archives, O’Brien explored removing King from the chairman position at one point after the chairman met with Howard Cutler, Superintendent of SAU 39, without the rest of the board present. Such meetings, which included the school board chairs from the district’s other towns, were common policy at the time.

“In some respect, he had a revolutionary or non-traditional ways of doing things,” King, the board chairman, said. “Ultimately, it would have made for some major changes in the way that we run our schools, the way we educate our children. … I think the state is seeing that side of him now.”

Maintaining a presence

After one term on the school board, O’Brien looked to take his focus on spending to Concord.

In 2004, O’Brien was elected to his first term in the state House of Representatives. Still a newcomer to town, he ran an under-the-radar campaign, holding few public events and pushing few issues during the campaign, colleagues said.

After serving a two-year term, O’Brien was voted out of office in 2006. He returned to the House in 2008, and in 2010 was elected by his peers to the speaker post.

“He’s very much a stealth candidate. He stays very under the radar,” said Linda Foster, a former Democratic state Representative from Mont Vernon, who ran against O’Brien and served with him for several terms.

“In this district, you have to be a little bit accountable when you go into the general store,” she said. “But people can’t ask those questions when you go into the store and nobody knows who you are.”

Keeping a low profile has been harder these days for O’Brien.

As he has risen in stature in Concord, O’Brien has spent less time around Mont Vernon. The demands of the speaker position force him to drive to the Statehouse almost daily throughout the year, colleagues said. And the family now owns a three-bedroom villa in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which they visit throughout the year.

“They’re very busy. We don’t see them around much anymore,” said Lautenschlage, who lives next door.

Still, the O’Briens maintain a presence around town, neighbors said. Roxanne O’Brien serves on the Historical Society and other groups, and Bill O’Brien has voted in every election since at least 2006, according to town voting records kept by the supervisors of the checklist.

Over the last few years, O’Brien has served on the Mont Vernon Police advisory committee, which authored the department’s first mission statement and widened its public outreach efforts, among other actions.

“He had the expertise of being a lawyer,” said Police Chief Kyle Aspinwall, who led the committee. “That was really valuable to us. … He was a good voice to have.”

O’Brien has already declared his intention to seek another term as House speaker. But with his children now grown and more grandchildren joining the family, neighbors in Mont Vernon are ready to welcome him back home.

“We’ll have to see what he does. It seems like he’s always involved in something,” said Tom McKinney, an acquaintance from around town.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens when his time (in the Statehouse) is over. He’s developed quite a following there,” added King, the former school board chairman, who clashed with O’Brien during their tenure. “With Bill O’Brien, it’s always interesting.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or