PEABODY — Ten years ago, at approximately 6:30 a.m., Michael Bonfanti walked into an empty corner office in City Hall and began his first day as mayor.
He had not been a city councilor, he had never served on the School Committee, and, he freely admits, "There were a lot of things I didn't know."
His predecessor, Peter Torigian, had cleaned out the office, leaving behind only a desk and, on top of it, a study detailing a multimillion-dollar project to renovate City Hall.
"I walked in, sat down, read the study, and it dawned on me that I was mayor. For about 15 seconds, I thought, 'Oh God, what do I do now?'" Bonfanti recalled. "But I shook it off real fast, got up and did the job.
"There is a moment when you realize that you have the responsibility. A lot of people in life like to have titles, but they don't realize they have the responsibility with that title. You have to figure that out quickly."
That realization is what awaits Ted Bettencourt, who was elected last month to replace the five-term mayor. Bonfanti announced in January that he would not run for re-election. Last week, he explained that he's fatigued, he's not as invested, he has a shorter temper, and he has caught himself listening less and acting like a know-it-all.
"That is something I dislike in politicians: It becomes about you. When you start doing that, it's time to leave," he said. "I stayed a couple of years longer than I set out to, because of the economic crisis. Honestly, I thought I was the best person to get us through that time.
"But there are always going to be a number of problems, and you start to realize it's someone else's turn and that they could do just as well as you or better."
Being mayor is like being in a game of Whac-A-Mole, he said: "You get done with one problem, and then another one pops up."
Although Bonfanti has had a year to process what his departure means, he jokes: "My wife is already looking for a second job, because she doesn't want to be around the house with me."
And it's clear that, much like his first day on the job, the reality of it won't arrive until it's smacking him in the face.
City Hall family
Old habits are hard to break, and Bonfanti is a creature of habit. He's almost always the first to arrive in City Hall (at 6:30). He turns on the coffee pot — or in recent years, the Keurig machine — and catches up on email and the morning news, then meets with whoever happens to stop by.
Just before 8 a.m., he wanders over to Finance Director Patricia Schaffer's office to go over city finances, seek advice, chat about this issue or that. Theirs is a close relationship.
"My role is to be the best adviser I can," she said.
And Bonfanti respects her advice. "Patty is not political," he said, "but when it comes to financial decisions, I listen to her."
Bonfanti's management style is not laissez faire, but it's far from overbearing. His philosophy is to hire good people to do the work and stay out of their way. That's not to say that he's ever out of the loop.
"I wander the building twice a day, not to check up on people, but to let them know I am there if there is a problem," he said. He described his team in City Hall as a family, and they seem to return the affection.
Bonfanti said that his most difficult task was having to lay off good workers. City Hall has about 10 fewer employees than when he started.
"I can honestly tell you I have no complaints; he's been a great boss," said Dianne Marchese, who has worked as an administrative assistant in the mayor's office since Bonfanti took over. "He's kind, he's generous, he cares, and he will be missed."
Tough decisions, criticism
Throughout his tenure, Bonfanti has prided himself on making tough decisions.
He has overseen the renovation of the high school and the building of two elementary schools. He has paved the way for a new middle school, spent millions on preservation, and set in motion major flood mitigation and downtown improvements that he believes will transform the downtown. He has looked out for those who can't help themselves, spearheading a social services summit and stopping the practice of housing homeless in motels on Route 1.
Peabody continues to enjoy the lowest taxes of any city on the North Shore, even amid the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression.
But like any politician, Bonfanti hasn't escaped criticism. School advocates say he's too tight with money, to the detriment of education. He's been called arrogant, hard-headed and worse. He struck a deal with the police union — that has since been reversed — granting them 9/11 as a holiday, drawing the ire of pundits across the country.
He's taken his hits in the press and from residents, and he has not been above telling off a reporter or even a resident who he feels deserves it. He says he has grown thicker skin over the years, but also says his patience wears thin the longer he stays at the job. He admits to making mistakes at times, but makes no apologies.
"Government is priorities. You make your best judgment, and you can't be afraid to make mistakes," he said. "The worst thing to be is indecisive.
"In a city of 52,000 people, where you also have 11 councilors, six School Committee members, 14 unions, strong personalities for department heads, you've got to deal with the press, you've got to deal with regulations and make it all work," Bonfanti said. "Any day you can satisfy anyone is a good day."
He claims not to worry about how he'll be judged over time.
"In the long run, you're dead. I haven't given it much thought," he said.
His wife of 42 years, Dorothy, and his two children — David, a Peabody police officer, and Leah — have been his support. Dorothy is not a political person, preferring to stay out of the public eye. Her husband's job has caused her to make sacrifices, has caused him to miss important family events and has caused them both to sometimes field unpleasant late-night phone calls.
"You could not do this job without a lot of support at home. It takes a lot of tolerance," Bonfanti said.
Bonfanti is considering a run for state Senate, saying it would be a new challenge and he could provide a different perspective on Beacon Hill. But whether or not he runs, he says he won't disappear from public life.
"I already retired once after 34 years (at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), and I remember walking out the door with tears in my eyes. You know that part of your life has ended. ...
"I saw that happen with Pete Torigian. Someone says 'Mayor,' and you turn your head and respond. You're used to that podium, you're used to taking charge, and now you're not doing that.
"It will be hard," he said, "but it's hard in any position."