PEABODY — Mayor Michael Bonfanti, with tears in his eyes, announced last night that he will not seek re-election when his fifth term as the city's top executive is up at the end of this year.
"You have heard me say that I view the position of mayor as a steward; a steward of the land, entrusted with the position for a period of time to strive to nurture, cultivate and improve the land and make it better than it was, then pass it on to the next steward," Bonfanti said last night as he concluded his annual mid-term address at Wiggin Auditorium at City Hall.
"I have strived with all my heart, soul and being to be worthy of that honor. It is now time," he said, then pausing as tears welled in his eyes. "It is now time that I relinquish my stewardship of the city and consequently I will not seek re-election."
A collective sense of surprise then engulfed some 200 people in the hall, and everyone stood up to cheer as Bonfanti relinquished the microphone and went back to his seat at the head of the City Council table.
"He kept it close to his vest," said newly elected Peabody City Council President Anne Manning-Martin, who admitted she did not know of the mayor's plans. She wasn't surprised, however.
"He's been there 10 years. He's a good man, who has done a lot for the city. He's put in a lot of hard work the last 10 years," she said. "Am I surprised? No. He's put in a lot of hours away from his family."
"Peabody has been served by a very honest, hardworking guy. He has leather in his blood, and I mean that in the most complimentary way," said longtime School Committee member David McGeney, who ran against Bonfanti for mayor of the Tanner City, when the mayor was first elected back in 2001.
In an interview after the announcement, Bonfanti said he's been mulling the idea of not seeking re-election for the last couple of months. His term expires at the end of the year, and a new mayor will be elected in November.
"It was a whole bunch of factors, and I don't want to get into all of them right now, but add it all up and I just feel it's the right time for me to go," Bonfanti said, adding that he will enjoy spending more time with his family. "But I'm not going to go away. I'm not going to give up politics."
Bonfanti's decision leaves the door wide open for the handful of people who have been said to be eyeing the city's top office. Councilor-at-large Ted Bettencourt has said he might consider a run at the mayor's office and so might outgoing council President David Gravel. Manning-Martin, who was unanimously elected council president last night, has denied that she will seek the office, but she acknowledged that, with the mayor's announcement, more may now be emboldened to throw their hat in ring.
Peabody has historically been very friendly to its incumbent mayors. It's been 60 years since a sitting mayor has lost an election when Philip O'Donnell edged out Leo McGrath in 1951.
"I expect there to be some interest," Manning-Martin said last night. "I hope those who are interested respect the mayor's time; it's still his time. He still has a year left to do a lot of good things to move the city forward."
Peabody Democratic state Rep. Joyce Spiliotis said she expects an interesting race this fall.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of interest. I think you'll see people announcing sooner rather than later," she said.
Bonfanti is the 13th mayor in Peabody's history. He has lived in the city for most of his life and graduated from Peabody High School in 1962 before joining the Army National Guard and later going to work at a local tannery. Bonfanti later worked for 33 years as an assistant bank examiner for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation before retiring in 2000, shortly before becoming mayor in 2002.
As the city's highest executive, Bonfanti has taken a fairly conservative fiscal approach and has been applauded for continuing to keep property taxes low despite dwindling state aid. The city now has reserves of nearly $10 million and has maintained high bond ratings while boasting perhaps the lowest property tax rate in the North Shore.
Flooding issues, however, have continued to dog the mayor and the city, even though the city has secured millions in grant money to stop the persistent flooding problem in downtown. Bonfanti also drew heat last spring for shepherding through a tight school budget that cut teaching positions, and dramatically increased fees for busing and using school buildings, and he was criticized for signing off on making Sept. 11 a paid holiday for city police officers in exchange for health insurance concessions.
Bonfanti has been a champion of improving Peabody's schools, committing more than $60 million on school building improvements since he took office in 2002. Under his watch, Peabody has also purchased more than 90 acres of open space for conservation.
In what proved to be Bonfanti's last mid-term address last night, the mayor touched on several highlights of the past year, while sounding a warning that the city has a long way to go before its fiscal troubles are over. Cutbacks "in staff and services," may be necessary to keep the ship afloat, he said.
Bonfanti outlined several goals for the upcoming year. He said that he and the city council should work to:
Strive to maintain services despite fiscal problems
Work to resolve the flooding problem and rehabilitate affected areas
Finish the city's rezoning effort
Re-evaluate the school district's organization and structure in light of declining enrollment
Upgrade public buildings and infrastructure
Maintain strong reserves and bond rating
As expected, Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin was unanimously elected council president for the upcoming year. It is customary for the position to go to the longest-serving council member who has not yet served as president. Manning-Martin has served as councilor since 2008, and before that she was a member of the Peabody School Committee from 2000 to 2007.
"I look forward to rolling up our sleeves and working together to move our great city forward," Manning told her fellow councilors as she accepted their nomination.
Manning takes over the council presidency from Councilor-at-Large David Gravel.
The first regular council meeting for the year will be on Jan. 13.
Michael Bonfanti has been victorious in all five of his bids for Peabody mayor. Here's how he fared:
2009 — Bonfanti 7,468, Russ Donovan 2,712
2007 — Bonfanti 6,712 votes, Barbara Guillette 1,373 votes
2005 — Bonfanti 8,207 votes, John Slattery 6,811 votes
2003 — Bonfanti runs uncontested
2001 — Light Commission member Bonfanti 10,280, School Committee member David McGeney, 7,082. That year, Peter Torigian did not run for re-election after 23 years on the job.