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Jeanne Burbidge and the spirit of service | Federal Way Mirror Interview
The Municipal League of King County has chosen Jeanne Burbidge, longtime Federal Way City Council member and former mayor, as its Public Official of the Year. Burbidge will be honored March 18 in Seattle at the league’s Centennial Celebration Dinner.
The Mirror recently sat down with Burbidge to discuss public life, Federal Way’s first mayoral election — and what she would fix with a magic wand.
What planted the seed for your public service? What was the turning point?
I would call it more of an evolution, a process that occurred over time. We moved to Federal Way over 40 years ago. I'm the kind of person who, when I see something in the community that could be improved, I want to see the improvement happen. And I'm willing to take at least an initial step. I've always been that way, I believe. Looking back, there are times when way before I had any kind of an official or identifiable role in the community, I tended to step forward and contact people, to write a letter or ask questions.
More than 30 years ago, we moved to our current house, which is near the very curvy part of Dash Point Road on the way to Dumas Bay Centre. It's a narrow winding road with barely any shoulders. Our children were young, and as they were growing, they used that road on foot. It's a hazardous road. If they wanted to walk to their elementary school, which was Adelaide, they needed to use that road — there was no other route to get there and there were essentially no shoulders. We weren't a city then, so I contacted the state Department of Transportation. I called them and wrote a letter. I was able to talk with one of the transportation engineers whom I've gotten to know better in my official role. At that time, I had no idea who to ask for or who to talk with. They were reasonably responsive in terms of having a discussion about it.
I took some photographs too — I thought I might be able to illustrate the problem as I see it better if I take some pictures. So I walked out there with a camera and thought, what will I use for perspective on this to show how very narrow this is? So I took off one of my tennis shoes and put it on the shoulder and took a picture of the shoe on the shoulder. And here's this shoulder not much wider than a tennis shoe.
Craig Stone responded to me and I had a conversation with him. He explained to me some of the restraints that they actually had in terms of the environment. The fact that there were steep shoulders there and streams going by — they were not able to readily widen the road without infringing on the natural environment.
You'll see that it's essentially the same (today) in many respects. There have been repairs along the shoulder and changes in the striping. There have been additional protections of the stream and some other changes that have taken place. But it's essentially the same road as it was then, simply because of the environmental conditions that exist.
One of the things that they did do, however, to mitigate and influence the speed that people tended to take going down the road was to narrow the lanes with the striping. I learned, from what they said, that people actually drive more slowly if their perception is that the road is narrower. You do that by striping the lanes more narrowly.
That was probably my first public project of that kind, my first transportation project.
Is money the biggest obstacle to accomplishing anything as a city council?
Money is one of the biggest obstacles. For a city like Federal Way, it's more of an obstacle than for many cities because our revenue per person in Federal Way is among the very lowest of all the cities in King County. That gives a bit of perspective as to the challenge we have. What I find and take a great deal of pride in is that we in Federal Way have accomplished just an amazing number of things.
What do you think has driven those accomplishments?
I see it as the spirit of the people and the city, frankly. We have incredible people in our city. I just constantly meet new people who provide all kinds of inspiration and energy. It comes down to connecting - connect those people with our challenges.
Is it difficult to engage citizens?
Yes and no. Sometimes the communication part of it is a challenge. Letting the whole community know all that we want them to know is a challenge. We have people coming forward even so to volunteer and say hey, let's work on this together. We have our city commissions. We have people who volunteer for those on a regular basis. They sign up usually for three years at a time. They often recommit to another three years. They take leadership positions. We have a couple of people serving on two commissions at the same time. So there's a real generosity of spirit and being willing to give personal time, and also just a love for engaging in the community and wanting to continue to maintain and improve on the quality of life that people identify in our city. I think that's what often brings people to Federal Way. They look around and they see the natural beauty and they see that there is a vitality here, there's an energy.
Of all the work you've done in Federal Way, when all is said and done, how did you make the city better?
I've seen my role in bringing people together with the needs and the resources. Another area I've focused on that has been with our business community. When I was first elected, there wasn't the strong relationship with the Chamber of Commerce that I believe exists today. I served as mayor the first two years of my second term. One of the things that I did during those two years was to initiate the economic opportunity response team. I was trying to do two things there. One was to point out in a more focused way the wonderful amenities of our city, to identify the beauty of the city, the resources that we had at that time — and we have more now. We have our aquatic center. We have the Hylebos Wetlands Park, the Dumas Bay Centre with the Knutzen Theatre, Celebration Park — all of these wonderful features and amenities in our city. Sometimes people have lived here a long time and have never been to or weren't aware of them.
Do you feel like you have to sell Federal Way to people who live in Federal Way?
To some degree, that seems to be important. We're creatures of habit. We often lead our lives in a way where we have our routine, we have our circle, we have our people that we interact with, our groups that we go to, our particular church, our particular friendship group. We don't necessarily reach out, all of us, to everything that's here. People still come down to Dumas Bay Centre and see the Knutzen Theatre and they say ‘oh, I didn't know this was here.’ Or they walk through the grounds and they see the incredible vista looking out to Puget Sound: ‘Oh, I didn't know this was here.’
What reaction does that generate inside you when a longtime resident says ‘I didn't know this was here?’
My reaction is I'm saddened for them, and I guess I'm saddened for the city as a whole too. I like to think there's more awareness, but there is a challenge to communicate with the whole city. And I understand that. But that's something I'd like to improve upon.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about Federal Way? It's OK to dream here.
I'd figure out a way to maybe have a little — you talk about a magic wand — somehow that just lets a light at each doorstep, some visual and written image of the beauty of our city and the wonderful features that we have here. And then hey, it's up to them after that. If you want to go visit, it's up to you.
It seems that you like to explore connections - you like to make them happen, you like to make the ones that are already there stronger.
That's very true.
Seems like that's what drives you — just making the connections.
That's a big part of it. You can think about that in terms of transportation too. I sit on the regional transit committee for King County and they're figuring out how we can more effectively and efficiently provide bus transportation, largely, because we don't have light rail in Federal Way yet. But it's coming. We have voted for that light rail to come to the edge of our city, the northern edge. The next vote, sometime in the future, will bring it all the way, we're hoping from that point to Tacoma, so we'll have that final connection. It's figuring out how that transportation can be provided more effectively so that we reduce the congestion, we don't have as many cars on the road during the commute time, and for people who don't have the car transportation available or who are unable to drive themselves can find adequate transit.
Then of course, it's also making sure our road system, our highway system, is working as well as it can and we have financial resources available. Serving on the Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) for the State of Washington and chairing it for the past two years has been especially rewarding for me. That's a program that has operated extremely efficiently and has a very low cost of administration. They use three cents of the gas tax on continuing basis large or small. TIB engineers go all over state.
Are you going to run for mayor of Federal Way?
I'm not planning to do that.
What would you like to see in Federal Way's first elected mayor, regardless of who it is?
I'd like to see someone who knows government, who is experienced in government, who has a highly developed sense of ethics and is familiar with the significant challenges and needs of city government. You look at any city the size of Federal Way, and all the departments and the kinds of employees that need to be in place to run the city government, from our highly trained police department; our community development department with planners and all of the training they need to have and the decisions they make; our public works department with the training and skills all of our engineers and other employees they need to have. Our parks department needs people with backgrounds in park planning and managing a parks and recreation department. You need people in human resources who can negotiate with unions and have the appropriate policies in place to manage employees and provide for their compensation benefits. It's extremely complex.
Are you optimistic about the election? What's your feeling?
The initial process, I believe, is sorting itself out. We'll see in the next two months. People will be making their decisions as to who's going to run, who's going to be the actual candidates. It will be important for people to do some serious analysis of the backgrounds of those people and their personal qualities as well as the values and experience they bring.