Burgess in the running for city council president | Slag Heap
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burgess in the running for city council president

Posted By on Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 1:18 PM

So much for the post-election lull. City councilor Ricky Burgess is campaigning to be the next president of city council -- a position  currently held by Doug Shields. And while such contests are usually of interest to only a small number of City Hall junkies, who becomes council president next year may say a lot about the future, and the relationship between a newly-elected mayor and the legislators across the hall. 

Interviewed in his office, Burgess said he decided -- "somewhat relucantly" --  to seek the post, which will be chosen by the nine-member council early next year. The president, he says, must "serve all nine members of council," while being a "fair negotiator with the mayor and his administration. I believe the position cannot be an audition for mayor, but must be held by someone who can work honestly and collaboratively with the mayor, so we can work to address the needs of the city." 

There needs to be "open dialogue between the administration and council," he says. And "discussions via accusations, slander, and calling for criminal investigation are not the best way to move our city forward."

Does that sound like Burgess might have some problems with the often-irascible Shields? Well, let it be noted here that Burgess didn't say that.

"I am not running because of anything anyone has done," he says. "I'm running because of what could be."

Now I know what you're thinking, or at least what you're worried about. Is all this talk about collaboration and "moving the city forward" (paging Ms. Montanez!) a sign that Ravenstahl would have a reliable ally at the head of council's table? 

"My history on council has shown me to be an independent person," Burgess says. "I have a long track record of being independent, and I don't see why two years on council should trump all my years of community service." 

Burgess gives credit to Ravenstahl for "doing more to empower the minority population than any mayor in history." (He points to the fact that the city's police chief and fire chief are black, and that Ravenstahl appointed Dara Ware Allen to the school board --  which he points out may be the first black school-board appointee to represent a district that was mostly black. "I don't think that's gotten enough attention," says Burgess.)

Still, he says that there will likely to be issues on which he -- and the rest of council -- will disagree with the mayor. The problem isn't the disagreements themselves, but the fact that they have become so acrimonious. To address that problem, Burgess says, he's wants to hold regularly scheduled meetings with the mayor, and to designate a council staffer as a liasion with the mayor's office. 

Burgess says it's high time to change the dynamic on Grant Street, in part because the mayor has, finally, won a four-year term. Both sides of city government have frequently been in campaign mode, he says -- but as of now, "This mayor has been elected by the vast majority of the city. It is time to realize that he is the mayor, and for council to begin that process of engaging him in a constructive way." Burgess says one reason he's a natural go-between is because "I don't have mayoral ambitions." 

What does Shields think of all this? Suffice it to say the council presidency appears to be the one thing he isn't feeling worked up about.

"I'm certainly open to new leadership on council," he said. "I've served two terms as president, and it's not easy. I'm in my 17th year on the fifth floor [having served as a councilor and aide to the late Bob O'Connor], and I don't have a lot of illusions left. Whether I'm the council president or someone else is, the communications problem will remain. Because for this administration, council isn't something to work with; it's something to be ignored. If Mr. Burgess thinks that will change, he's fooling himself."

When I asked if Shields even intended to run for the spot again, he made it clear he wouldn't run very hard.  "Do I need the presidency to launch a run for something else?" he asked. "Not really. Do I need to prove anything more? I think I've earned a reputation for being hard-working, and for having integrity. I'm secure with myself."

Shields says that if his fellow councilors "vote for me, I'll accept it. If people want to move on, that's OK too."

Will the rest of council be so philosophical? It remains to be seen. So far, I've heard speculation about presidential aspirations on the part of at five councilors -- a majority of the body. But as one councilor told me, "That's how it always is at this point. It's like an episode of Law & Order: The first suspect is never the person who did it." 

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