Every night after his kids go to bed, Department of Public Works superintendent Kevin O’Connor prepares for the 5:30 a.m. start to his work day by reviewing assignments for the next morning.
With nearly 27 years of experience, he approaches his job based on knowledge gained by working in the DPW in a number of different capacities since the age of 16. Over time, he worked his way up through the ranks, following in the footsteps of men who also served in the department, including former superintendents Mayor Michael Gonnelli and Charles Snyder. O’Connor credits those two as teachers from whom he learned a lot.
“It has always been Mike and Chuck since the day I was hired,” said O’Connor. “Mike came out every morning and greeted the guys…Mike is a great teacher. He has got great ideas.”
While his primary responsibilities call for management and oversight, he doesn’t believe in spending his days in the office behind a desk. He wants to maintain the rapport he has established with his employees by working alongside them.
“I watched and I learned and I think I am on the right track.” – Kevin O’Connor
In early April, O’Connor, 43, was promoted to superintendent of the DPW. He most recently served as an assistant superintendent – a position he had held since 2010. In his new role, he makes $105,000 and oversees approximately 72 employees, and an operating budget of close to $6 million, plus a capital budget that is over half a million dollars. The department is predominantly male, although three women work the front office at an administrative level.
Growing up with the department
“When I was 16 years old, you were lucky if there were 10 guys that worked for the DPW,” said O’Connor. “[Buildings and grounds alone] has tripled in size since the days I was pushing a lawnmower at the park.”
He began working part-time for the DPW as a teenager as part of a summer program. He eventually took a full-time position in 1989 when he was a college student.
O’Connor, originally from Ireland, arrived in Secaucus at the age of seven in 1975. He said his parents left his home country because of the state of its economy.
“They packed us up as kids and off we went,” said O’Connor. “We had relatives here that had come over years ago.”
After he graduated from Hudson Catholic in Jersey City, he went on to study engineering, then management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and obtained his associate’s degree. O’Connor said that he intends to complete his bachelor’s degree at some point.
“It has always been something that I’d really like to do,” said O’Connor. “I am really not too far off.”
He chose to begin working full-time because he wanted to be close to home, among other reasons. “You do a little bit of everything. It is not just one particular job.”
He went on to get his license for certified public works management from Rutgers in 2005.
When he first started out with the DPW, he primarily focused on landscaping during the first 10-12 years then moved on to making signs. Under Gonnelli, the DPW invested in software and a plotting machine that produces different types of street signs and banners.
“There is a lot more than recycling, picking up litter, and ball fields,” said O’Connor. “It is a lot in the day.”
Training, equipment, and efficiency
In March, the Town Council reorganized the DPW, primarily to return to the superintendent the day-to-day management and reestablish supervisory duties that were removed in 2006 by the previous administration.
O’Connor envisions the department divided into three areas: buildings and grounds, transportation, and streets. He plans to post an opening for another assistant superintendent position, pending the approval of the mayor and Town Council, to fill the position he left vacant.
In addition to hiring an assistant superintendent, O’Connor said training staff is among his priorities. He said training typically occurs during the winter months. Employees who work the landscape detail may be trained in street sweeper operations or trained to operate the pump stations, for example.
“You try to get them well-rounded,” said O’Connor.
Another priority for O’Connor is increasing efficiency by upgrading equipment. Last year, the department went out to bid for a new garbage truck and street sweeper. Last week he said that the department ordered six new trucks including small pick-up trucks, and little mason dumps.
“The more updated on equipment, the more efficient we are, the better we can serve,” said O’Connor. In the past, he said that the DPW was often the last department considered for upgrades, but in recent years it has seen more funding for projects.
“You gotta hope that the budgets allow you to keep doing projects that you want to move forward with,” said O’Connor.
Establishing a new legacy
O’Connor said that since 2010, the DPW has helped make several improvements to the town, especially some related to beautifying the town center with the clock, gazebo, and landscaping – all synonymous with priorities the mayor has touted. He says the biggest challenge is ensuring all the resurfaced roads are maintained. He said the DPW team devotes as much attention to areas like Harmon Cove and industrial sections as it does to residential areas.
“I got some big shoes to fill between Chuck and Mike and their combined years of service,” said O’Connor. “I watched and I learned and I think I am on the right track.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.