Tim Burgess’ secret mayoral sauce

City Council member and mayoral candidate, Tim Burgess. Credit: Photo: Berit Anderson

Tim Burgess wants to be a mayor who brings people together. In a visit with Crosscut writers and editors on Thursday, the Seattle City Council member and mayoral candidate said that two of his main goals as mayor would be to create a police department with strong public confidence and to greatly improve transportation.

Burgess also emphasized the need for changes to the school system, including the possibility of the city taking over Seattle Public Schools. He faulted the district for not moving more aggressively to overhaul its most persistently underperforming schools.

The interview with Burgess was the first in a series of Crosscut sessions that will be held for mayoral candidates in this year's election. Incumbent Mike McGinn and at least six other serious candidates are running in the August primary, although the official filing of candidacies doesn't occur until mid-May.

Burgess drew a sharp contrast between what he described as his own emphasis on collaboration and the leadership of McGinn. In particular, he harked back to McGinn's 2009 pre-election commitment to work with the council on replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel. That commitment, he said, was quickly revoked once he took office and began to work against a tunnel. "That was our first indication of an elected official who consistently chooses conflict over collaboration," he said. McGinn has said that the conflicts with City Council are exaggerated and that they work together very productively on many issues.

Burgess pointed to Norm Rice and Charles Royer as models of the more collaborative mayoral approach he would pursue. There is "some natural conflict or adversarial quality to the relationship" between councils and mayors, he conceded, but said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown that a working bipartisan relationship can be productive. 

A former Seattle police officer, Burgess praised the quality of officers in the city department, but said other cities have taken more innovative routes to improving police practices overall. Chief John Diaz and a number of other senior department officers directly under him, he said, should go. While the police chief can be recruited outside the department, under city charter, the other officers would have to be recruited internally. Still, Burgess said, there are well-qualified people to promote.

One of his main goals after four years as mayor, Burgess said, would be that citizens "look to our Police Department and say, 'That is our most respected, honorable institution.' "

Another of the term cornerstones he'd like to see himself achieve: "Huge progress" on transportation and "not this conflict" in which some residents feel that there is a war on cars. Alluding to potholes, he said, "We dare not let our streets deteriorate to the level that bike riders tumble into holes."

That won't be easy. Burgess says there's a nearly $2 billion backlog in needed transportation maintenance and improvement projects. Without more public trust in the use of transportation money, he warned, voters will reject a 2015 levy that must be submitted to renew local transportation funding.

Burgess, his wife, Jolene, and their three children are products of Seattle Public Schools, so it's no surprise he considers it another of his priorities. "I graduated in 1967 and the adults then were talking about North End schools vs. South End schools," he said. "And they are talking about it today. That's a tragedy."

It's important, he argued, for the city and the school system to align their resources and efforts for education. One such example: the city's agreement to let its ethics office handle questions for the Seattle school district.

Would he push for a mayoral takeover of the school system? Burgess pointed to a recent Center for American Progress study that showed mixed educational results in cities that control of school systems, but said the report is a good source for best practices if a city does choose that approach.

Burgess, a supporter of a proposed sports arena in the SoDo district, said more mitigation for transportation improvements may be needed beyond what Chris Hansen's investment group is expected to contribute. Stronger protection for Port of Seattle functions, he argued, are needed in future land-use planning. But he also favors making the area around the city's sports stadiums "a successful neighborhood."

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