Elizabeth "Betty" Hewlett grew up in a solidly middle-class home in Queens, New York, the daughter of a pediatrician and a schoolteacher who told her that she should give back to the community. But how?

That is the happy question that faces the popular chairman of the Prince George's Planning Board, when, at 44, she ponders her options for the new millennium. Her name has been mentioned for public office--from Congress to county executive--for the bench, for a federal post. Also, there is always the corporate world or private law practice, "a natural progression for me."

She has, she says, "done intense soul-searching and tried to assess my strengths, weaknesses and, most important, my passion. I haven't quite figured it out yet."

"The county executive thing has picked up momentum, but it has to be for the right reasons," said the Prince George's Community Foundation's Woman of the Year in 1998. "It has some intriguing aspects, but, on balance, I'm not there at this time."

Whatever she ultimately decides, she says, she must feel passionately about. Her current passion: the 2000 Census. "It's really exciting, a big challenge," Hewlett said.

She chairs an official committee to impress upon citizens the importance of being counted. In 1990, she notes, Prince George's had "a terrible undercount," resulting in a loss of $20 million a year in federal funds, which are allocated on the basis of such information. That's a $200 million loss during the decade.

Appointed planning board chairman in 1995 to fulfill the unexpired two-year term of her predecessor, Hewlett serves at the pleasure of County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), as do two other board members whose terms have expired. "It doesn't cause me concern," she says. "We'll either be reappointed or replaced."

Overseeing contentious hearings has made good use of her judicial temperament. Though sometimes the law isn't as sympathetic to the residents as she would like, she is a staunch believer in it and renders decisions accordingly.

"It's tough sometimes," she said. "We're constrained by existing laws and regulations. We don't have the ability to arm-twist to the extent we'd like. There are times I wish we could've extracted a little more for the benefit of the community."

But Hewlett, who lives in the Northridge section of Bowie with her 80-year-old mother, is famously even-tempered. "It works for me," she said. "You can get a lot done."

CAPTION: Elizabeth "Betty" Hewlett