For CU CEO Who's Also Mayor, One Small Perk Is A Big Reward

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DEER RIVER, Minn. — Of all the advantages that come with being mayor of Deer River, John O'Brien's favorite perk is reading to kids at the local grade school each year.

"It's a small thing, but each year the mayor gets to read a book of choice to the first graders," said O'Brien, who is also CEO of the $15-million Deer River CO-OP CU. O'Brien said he enjoys the reactions of the children to his visits. "I don't consider the mayor of a small town a big position. But the kids are awestruck. Some ask me if I live in the White House."

For the last five years O'Brien has been reading his favorite book from his youth-"A Fly Went By" by Mike McClintock-and putting smiles on the faces of kids. But being mayor here-and running a credit union-present other advantages. O'Brien said being CEO helps him have a strong grasp of the town's financial statement and manage the city budget better, and gain keener insights into the economic stability of the community.

With well over half of the city's 950 residents CU members, O'Brien is acutely aware of the financial hardships facing many townspeople who have lost their jobs to the recession. "You get a little closer look into the economic challenges facing people," admitted O'Brien. "I think that makes a mayor even more sensitive to the town's needs. For example, I know that even if we raise the minimum water bill by one dollar, that will impact some individuals here."

Clear, Not Easy, Decisions

O'Brien believes those kinds of insights make his decisions as mayor more clear-not easier-when setting policies that affect residents. But difficult decisions or not, the CEO and mayor said he has not been daunted by the task of running Deer River, and enjoys the challenge of steering the city budget toward areas and projects that do the most good for the town.

"We don't have money readily available to make big improvements in infrastructure, we have had to focus on police protection and snow removal, which has been a real issue this year. I'd like to be able to fix some roads and upgrade our sanitary sewer settling pond. We put in a second well last summer that improved the quality of water on the south of town."

Running the credit union and the city doesn't always present advantages. O'Brien admitted that sometimes it can be difficult to do both jobs, especially when the credit union is located across the street from city hall. '

"It wasn't always that way, and it wasn't a bad thing that we used to be more than a block away from the city offices," O'Brien explained. "But we moved the credit union to a bigger location. Now being across the street form city hall sometimes makes me too accessible to city staff."

Before the CU moved, O'Brien said he was putting in less than five hours a week on his mayor's duties when he averaged his tasks over the course of a year. "Now it's over five hours," he said.

Priot to his five-year stint as mayor, O'Brien spent seven years on the Deer River city council. During his political career, O'Brien said those in elected positions here have always gotten along, which has helped decision making—unlike what is happening in Washington today.

"Hopefully Washington will get something going, as we have wasted a lot of time in a stalemate. I think on the national level they are beginning to realize they have to work together. We have always known that in Deer River. Despite some disagreements everyone realizes we will all be at the same picnic each year."

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