Behind the Scenes for 40 Years: Longtime Town Manager Retires

By JAMES KINSELLA

Some people crave the spotlight. Peter O. Bettencourt is not among them.

"Oh, God," Mr. Bettencourt muttered Monday, when Arthur Smadbeck, chairman of the Edgartown selectmen, let it be known that the selectmen had a memento of appreciation for their town administrator's nearly 40 years of full-time work for the town.

Mr. Bettencourt was given a small needlepoint rendering showing the front of the Edgartown town hall and listing his name and dates of service: 1966-2005.

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The scattering of people attending Monday's selectmen's meeting - Mr. Bettencourt's last as Edgartown town administrator - broke into applause.

Mulling the moment, Mr. Bettencourt, 66, estimated he had attended 2,500 Edgartown selectmen's meetings, more or less.

"It's really been quite a ride," he said.

He said a few more words. Then the meeting resumed, and Mr. Bettencourt slipped back to where he is most comfortable: the background.

For Mr. Bettencourt, walking softly has become a guiding mantra in his supervision of the operation of Edgartown town government.

But do not confuse his low-key approach with a lack of influence. He knows Edgartown. He knows municipal government. And he has prized working, in his words, "just behind the scenes," addressing questions and heading off problems before they rise to the level of public controversy.

"He's been absolutely outstanding," said Ronald H. Rappaport, counsel to Edgartown and four other Vineyard towns. "He has an extensive, almost encyclopedic knowledge of statutes and regulations that govern the operation of a municipality. He keeps the town running smoothly and efficiently. You never read about him."

The acknowledged dean of town administration on the Vineyard, Mr. Bettencourt commonly is tapped by other towns for his knowledge.

"He's a consummate professional," Mr. Rappaport said. "He's the best on the Island."

Edgartown is Mr. Bettencourt's home town. His family was steeped in municipal service and employment. His grandfather served as tax collector for nine years, his uncle served as a selectman and town accountant for six years, his mother served as a trustee of the Edgartown Free Public Library for 29 years, and his father worked a total of 53 years for the town police and mosquito control departments.

Mr. Bettencourt, in fact, started working for the town of Edgartown just out of high school in 1956, as a seasonal employee in the mosquito control program.

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After college, he returned to Edgartown, where he worked at the post office and did income tax returns and business accounting on the side.

"You know everybody when you work at the post office," Mr. Bettencourt said. "At the window, you see them all the time, so they know me, and I know them. It was a nice transition into a position with the town."

In 1966, the selectmen appointed him town accountant and clerk of the boards, including the board of selectmen.

Three years later, Mr. Bettencourt wrote a report that backed a plan to create the post of executive secretary.

"It has the obvious advantage of relieving the part-time selectmen of a maze of major town problems," he wrote. The person holding the job, he wrote, would supply direct, full-time contact with the board of selectmen.

The town adopted the proposal and Mr. Bettencourt was named to the post. In 1974, he shed the town accountant position to become a full-time executive secretary.

Another employee, Priscilla Donnelly, would be named to the town accountant slot he had held. In 1985, the two would marry.

In 1998, Mr. Bettencourt's job title was changed to town administrator, less to shift his duties than to acknowledge what the position had become.

The town hall where Mr. Bettencourt launched his municipal career offered intriguing working conditions. Town offices, including the police department with a holding cell, were crowded onto the first floor. In the summer, lines formed out the front door to use town hall's de facto and rare public restrooms.

What are now the upper floors housed the town's only movie theatre. The start-up of the theatre's popcorn machine sounded like a machine gun to the employees below. Sometimes the upper-story bathrooms would overflow, sending water down to the first floor.

But what Mr. Bettencourt recalls from his youth as a very small, quiet, rural town was headed for more notoriety and growth. First came the 1969 fatal accident on Chappaquiddick involving Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Next came the movie blockbuster Jaws in the mid-1970s, followed by President Bill Clinton's series of Vineyard vacations in the 1990s. Each development, Mr. Bettencourt said, raised Edgartown's formerly low profile and brought more growth to the community.

And while Edgartown grew, Mr. Bettencourt devoted himself to the smooth operation of the town government at its core.

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"I've looked at myself over the years as a problem solver," he said. "People, anyone, could come in. I've always had an open-door policy. Those are the things you really don't see at meetings. It's a lot of stuff that goes on in the background, things that can be resolved by me or whoever's in my position, so they don't have to go to the next level." He continued:

"I consider myself a good listener. I try to be fair, to play it down the middle without taking sides, because I felt if I start taking sides, people are going to be less prone to come in and talk to me."

Former Edgartown selectman Fred B. (Ted) Morgan Jr. praised Mr. Bettencourt's tact and diplomacy.

"He has the personality that can get along with anybody," Mr. Morgan said. "I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Peter and his performance," he added.

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"I don't see my role as confrontational," Mr. Bettencourt said. "I find what I've done over the years has been effective and that's why I continue to do it that way."

The low-key approach from the top has encouraged employees to stay with the town, and spared Mr. Bettencourt the added work of dealing with a revolving door.

He has also been spared a revolving door when it comes to selectmen, a number of whom have served for nine or 12 years.

Mr. Bettencourt also has earned a well-deserved reputation as a skilled numbers guy when it comes to municipal finance.

"He is outstanding when it comes to putting a budget together," Mr. Morgan said.

Keenly aware of the constraints of Proposition 2 1/2, a state law that limits the annual growth in a town's tax levy to 2 1/2 percent, Mr. Bettencourt has a reputation for crafting operating budgets that do not exceed the limit.

"I'm responsible to everybody in saying, ‘This is the number. This is what we have to work with,'" he said.

On Jan. 1, Mr. Bettencourt will step down. Pamela Dolby, a longtime Edgartown town employee, will take over the job. She has been working with Mr. Bettencourt since Nov. 1 as a transition into the job.

"I'm slowly pulling away," he said. "She's getting in there. She'll do fine. She's enthusiastic, she's eager to learn, and she's off and running."

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He said he will make himself available to help the town as needed after retiring. He also plans to take a part-time job at the Edgartown law firm of Reynolds, Rappaport and Kaplan.

"We want to be able to offer the expertise Peter has to our municipal clients," Mr. Rappaport said.

Mr. Bettencourt, who has made his home near Sengekontacket Pond for 34 years, also looks forward to spending more time with his family, which includes four children, two step-children and 11 grandchildren.

Edgartown, however, will remain at the center of his universe.

"I was born and raised here," he said. "I found a job here fairly early. I always thought of it as home. I liked the community, I liked the people in it, I liked the surroundings. I never really thought of doing anything else. I just enjoyed spending the time here."

If Mr. Bettencourt is glad he chose Edgartown, so are many in Edgartown.

"I consider him the glue that sort of held the town together," Mr. Morgan said.