Retired high tech executive; a focus on collaboration, keeping the town affordable
Ken Swanton. (Courtesy photo)
Ken Swanton, running for re-election to the Board of Selectmen, moved to Harvard seven years ago after living in Bolton for 30 years. He grew up in Newton but moved to Bolton to live in the country. He raised three kids there and served on the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Conservation Trust, and School Committee. Swanton earned an undergraduate degree in economics at MIT and a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard Business School. He is now retired, but he worked for more than 30 years in the high-tech industry, including 17 years at Digital Equipment Corporation, where he rose to the level of vice president, and more than a decade at Broadcast Pix, a video equipment company that he co-founded in 2001. Shortly after moving here, Swanton was appointed to the Harvard Historical Commission and served as chairman of that group for three years. In 2014 he was elected to the Board of Selectmen and was voted chairman last spring.
Q: How would your presence as a selectman contribute to the work of the board?
A: I think I have a good track record of collaboratively getting things done. When I first got onto the Board of Selectmen, I helped to build a consensus around the Hildreth House accessibility renovation. I also worked closely with the building committee that was overseeing the Town Hall renovation. Now I’m working on the Old Library Accessibility Committee and the school building committee. I also feel very proud of the fact that we’ve extended our streak to nine years of no general overrides. I have a focus on collaborating and a track record of getting things done, and I think that’s what I’d continue to bring to the board. I get that the overall goal of the Harvard selectmen is to enhance why people come here—it’s a beautiful country town with good schools. The selectmen need to balance that with keeping the town affordable.
Q: What are the three most important issues the selectmen will face during your three-year term, and what would be your priorities, including spending, for dealing with them?
A: I think the town is going to be faced with several big decisions over the next few years. One is the school building project. Another is the course we take on Devens. A couple of other decisions are the direction for senior housing and what happens with the senior center, and what happens with accessibility for the old library. As far as spending priorities, I think we really need to understand the scope and the cost of the school renovation before we make other major capital commitments. We also need to watch the cost of benefits, which is growing quickly. We’ve made some progress there, but there’s more to be done.
Q: What are your thoughts on the changes to town government being considered by the Charter Commission?
A: I’m happy that the Charter Commission volunteers are taking a complete look at town government. There’s talk of a recreation director; I think that’s a good thing, and it’s something that the selectmen are already looking into. The Charter Commission is considering having very few elected positions, just the selectmen and the School Committee, and I’m not as enthused about that. I’d like to better understand the pros and cons. [As far as the selectmen preparing the annual budget,] I like the thought of the selectmen getting involved early in the budget process around overall goal setting, but I would not want to disrupt the Finance Committee process. I think the Finance Committee does a great job, and I don’t think the selectmen should try to take that on. I also want to better understand the pros and cons of doing things the old way and just making some changes, or doing things more formally in the form of a charter.
Q: What work needs to be done to decide whether the town should resume jurisdiction for Devens?
A: The next big step is April 4, when the town will be voting on the question [of whether the selectmen should prepare a plan to resume jurisdiction of Devens land that was once part of Harvard]. It’s a long journey; this is not a once-and-done vote, but we’ve got to get a sense of the citizens. If people vote yes, the selectmen will go down the path of having the discussions and bringing back a full-blown plan and bringing it back to the people; if people vote no, they’ll set it aside. I think we’ve done enough planning, and that poll is what should happen next. Studies [by the Devens Economic Analysis Team] have shown that in the long term, our property taxes would be helped a lot by reincorporating Devens. As the tax grants that were given to the companies there roll off, and as the land gets built out further, [resuming jurisdiction over the Harvard portion of Devens] could really help Harvard with its tax base.
Q: What steps should be taken to develop the commercial district?
A: Personally I don’t think the commercial district is a panacea to lower our taxes. Even if it was built out completely, it wouldn’t make much of a dent. I’d rather see us thinking about what businesses we want in the commercial district that would serve the needs of the residents of Harvard. Surveys have already been done of what kind of things citizens would like to see in town. We do need to be mindful of not creating a tremendous amount of traffic. The scale should fit the country town of Harvard. Frankly, this is probably more of a Planning Board question because it writes the zoning laws. The selectmen could encourage the Planning Board one way or another, but it is an elected board.
Q: The Board of Selectmen has been criticized for being polarized. What would you do to make it a more collaborative committee?
A: I’ve been on the selectmen for three years now, and 99 percent of our votes are unanimous. When we do have discussions, it’s usually respectful. We occasionally have disagreements that don’t result in a unanimous vote because we represent a lot of different people in town. I don’t see the board as heavily polarized or uncollaborative. [We have] five members who are elected from a fairly diverse population. We can’t talk outside the meetings because of the Open Meeting Law, so we have to hash things out in meetings. The fact that 99 percent of our votes are unanimous tells me it’s not that uncollaborative.
Q: What would you do to make the work of the town administrator and professional staff more transparent and accountable?
A: This is something I feel strongly about. When I got [onto the board,] there was no formal review process for the town administrator, and reviews hadn’t been done for several years. They’ve been done each year [since then], and I put a policy in place this year to make sure they get done every year. It’s a key part of accountability to let people know what they’re doing well and where they could improve. I also think what we did with goal setting, putting names and dates on the goals, has helped, because a lot of those goals fall on the town administrator and his staff. As far as transparency, after not hiring the finance director’s replacement twice, we could have easily just split the position, but instead, we rolled up our sleeves and sat down with the School Committee and [agreed to try again with the goal] of having a single person [for the town budget and the school budget]. The school budget is most of the town’s budget. That’s the greatest transparency of all, because the finance director was the only person on both teams.
Q: Is there anything else you would like the community to know about you that we forgot to ask?
A: I’m running again because I enjoy volunteering in town, and there’s more I want to do. I spent a lot of years on a lot of committees here and in Bolton. The more you volunteer on different boards, the more perspective you have. It’s kind of like a hobby for me.