Bettencourt Lays Out Priorities Come Jan. 3
Former city councilor Ted Bettencourt is poised to become the next mayor of Peabody. He says first priorities going forward are business development council, flooding, Higgins School and new superintendent.
Ted Bettencourt is poised to become Peabody’s 14th mayor when he’s sworn in to office Monday night.
Bear in mind, that’s just 13 mayors since 1917 – the late Peter Torigian had the record by far with 23 years in the corner office, and Bettencourt, 38, now succeeds Michael Bonfanti, who spent a full decade as mayor.
In a recent interview with Peabody Patch, Bettencourt outlined some of his priorities, starting Jan. 3, talking points he will no doubt address in his inaugural speech Monday night.
Late last week, as the city mourned the loss of Firefighter James Rice in the line of duty, Bettencourt said he had to rewrite his speech and indicated he would address the tragedy Monday.
As for his priorities, “right off the bat” Bettencourt will be forming a business development council, which he campaigned heavily on, to focus on the downtown, Centennial Industrial Park and Route 1. He says that advisory group will be made up of city officials and local business people who will be looking at ways to market those areas from a broad perspective.
And just as quick as he takes office, Bettencourt will also forge ahead with the flood mitigation project downtown. He said the issue of whether to approve an $18 million bond authorization request for the first phase of the work won’t stay in committee for long.
Bettencourt asked city councilors on the Finance Committee to postpone voting on the request from Bonfanti last month in order to allow him time to review the project with city finance officials. The move came despite strong warnings from city officials that further delays could jeopardize various aspects of the project.
“I’m not going to worry about some of those other deadlines until we have all our ducks in a row,” he said, adding it’s “essential” to make sure the costs are under control first.
Bettencourt likewise campaigned on the importance of addressing flooding in the downtown.
A third priority, on the education front, is a decision on the Higgins Middle School. Bettencourt said he would be ready to either move forward on building a new school or choosing to renovate the existing structure.
Bettencourt indicated he would favor building new if the cost difference for the city was only “a short amount of money.” That appears to be the case based on recent preliminary analysis by project consultants.
And another major focus for public education is hiring a new school superintendent. Dr. Herb Levine was hired in July on an interim basis, and Bettencourt believes he’s “doing a great job.”
Bettencourt said the permanent hire should be someone committed to putting in several years on the job, as opposed to the more typical practice of spending two or three years before looking for greener pastures or retirement.
Bettencourt characterized much of his time between the election and taking office as “information gathering,” in which he reviewed various city matters with Bonfanti, met with department heads and just tried to get a good grasp on the state of the city.
He said he wasn’t approaching those meetings with budget cuts or spending increases already mapped out for the year.
Bettencourt did say will be making some changes in personnel at City Hall, in addition to hiring a chief of staff, but he hasn’t disclosed that information yet.
He said he wants to bring in a few close advisors, as any chief executive might in a similar situation, but doesn’t see great value in making widespread changes in staff as he takes office.
“Certainly there are good employees who have a lot of institutional knowledge. I want to keep that,” he said.
Another important working relationship for Bettencourt will be his rapport with the City Council and School Committee. Bonfanti was not alone among his peers in wading through controversial issues that strained those ties at times over the years.
Bettencourt said he’s sure there will be times he and School Committee members or former colleagues on the council will disagree, but he’s also “fortunate that [he] had a lot of support from elected officials during the election.”
“I feel they see me as an honest, forthright person,” he said, adding that should give him a lot of “credibility” with them in the future. He’ll also continue to work on those relationships.
As for union contracts, which are expiring this June, Bettencourt sees himself coming in with a “fresh perspective” that may defuse some of the combativeness that has marked contract talks in recent years.
He said he does plan to sit down with the teachers’ union first and hear why it did not agree to the one-year 0 percent contract that all other city unions agreed to last summer.
Part of those talks will undoubtedly revolve around healthcare – Bettencourt strongly supports the city adopting the Municipal Health Insurance Reform Act, which gives cities and towns more control on some health insurance costs and which insurance providers to sign up with. There is also an expedited bargaining process if both sides cannot come to an agreement in certain period of time.
“I do believe in fair negotiations…bargaining openly and honestly,” Bettencourt said, adding that he sees the new law as a tool to help bring insurance costs under control.
He said he’s not “locked in” on any one plan already; rather he just wants to look at all the options.
“I think the unions do recognize the economic conditions cities and towns are in,” he said.
Over the past two months, Bettencourt said, Bonfanti has been very forthcoming with any information he has needed, and in general has offered as much help as he could.
“I have a great deal of respect for Mayor Bonfanti,” he said. “And probably more so after taking office and seeing some of the things he’s had to deal with for 10 years,” he added – the economy for one.
Bettencourt said the role of mayor requires a person with a “great deal of compassion” along with the toughness needed to make hard decisions.
“[Bonfanti] has been able to find that balance of compassion and toughness well,” he said.
Overall, with praise for Bonfanti and no drastic shifts proposed for the city, Bettencourt still believes some change is needed.
“I certainly think there do need to be some changes, else I wouldn’t have run for mayor,” he said. “I’m excited and can’t wait to get started.”