After an often frustrating year on serving the Leesburg Town Council, Kelly Burk hopes for a brighter 2017 as she takes over the mayor’s gavel.
Burk was successful in her first bid for mayor, besting David Butler, who was appointed mayor by the council last February, and former Town Council member Kevin Wright. It was a convincing win for Burk—runner-up Wright trailed her by more than 2,000 votes —who is no newcomer to elected office.
Burk moved to Leesburg with her husband in 1979 and worked as a special education teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools. While she did not immediately enter politics as an elected official, it was always a part of her makeup.
Burk recalls dinnertime conversations with her family as a child, when it was not uncommon to have the topic of politics brought up.
“I came from a family that lived and breathed politics,” she said. “We were always taught that you can complain all you want, but you better do something to make the change. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.”
Burk said it was that family rule—along with her dissatisfaction with how some of the development in town was progressing—that ultimately pushed her to run for a council seat for the first time in 2004.
“Rather than complain and do nothing, I was willing to put my name forward and see if I can help make some changes,” she said.
And she has been casting votes to make those changes for the better part of the past 12 years. Three years into her first four-year council term, Burk won election as the Leesburg District representative on the Board of Supervisors.
She said having both the experience of helping to run the town and the county has given her a good perspective.
“You learn what the county is doing as a whole, but then you also learn what are the services the county is providing the town and what are the things that are important elements to that relationship with the county,” she said. “You’ve got to realize at the county level they’re looking in districts, they’re looking to preserve for their district. You’ve got to be able to convince them that helping Leesburg is good for their district.”
Burk was unsuccessful in her re-election bid to the board, losing out to her council colleague of the past and future, Ken Reid. The four months between the end of her term and the special election to fill the rest of Reid’s council term gave her some time to process the results and determine how she wanted to move forward. She noted that several people, including some in the downtown business community, asked her to consider running for Reid’s seat and to continue serving the town.
“It’s a harsh reality to lose an election after working so hard. Your ego’s a little bruised. But then when people do come forward, you’ve got to think about do you want to just lick your wounds or do you want to stand up and try it again,” she said.
She ultimately decided to give it another go, and won the special election against Dwight Dopilka. She was successful in her re-election bid in 2014 and, with her recent election to the mayor’s seat, joins a select group of town residents who have served both as a Town Council member, district supervisor, and mayor. This group includes longtime town mayor Kristen Umstattd, a very good friend of Burk’s, who is the Leesburg District supervisor.
Burk said Umstattd has given her lots of advice as she heads to her first term as mayor. “Always respect people no matter how different they may seem to you; value the input that the public gives you; always be willing to smile and have a laugh; enjoy it,” Burk lists off.
Burk notes that Umstattd made running meetings and serving as mayor “look easy” but it certainly wasn’t, Burk said. “When Kristen first started [as mayor] she had some rocky terms but she learned. She made it look easy toward the end, but it was never easy. She was always working.”
Burk said 2016 was one of her most challenging as an elected official.
“It was a very tough year. I think it started with the appointment of the mayor and the way that process was done,” Burk said. “I think that set the stage and the tone for what was going to happen for the rest of the year.”
It’s a process Burk hopes to not repeat in 2017, when the council will again grapple with appointing filling a council seat—hers—until a special election is held. Appointing a new council member has to be “open, transparent and fair,” and Burk said she hopes that the process the council recently voted on—having the three candidates with the most support address the council at its Jan. 9 organizational meeting—achieves it.
And that goes toward one of her main goals as mayor.
“We need to return some honest and open discussions back to the council. There’s a need for honest government and it hasn’t been there. Making deals behind the scenes and not discussing things in front of the public, really, I think hurt the integrity of the entire council,” she said. “I want to bring it back to the point where the public is important, and I want to make sure the public is informed.”
And that doesn’t mean that the council may not have to enter closed sessions from time to time, she emphasizes, to protect the interests of the town or discuss legal or personnel matters.
Another big goal for the new mayor also relates to 2016, a year that ended with almost 900 housing units approved by the Town Council in less than two months, with a total of more than 2,000 residential units in the pipeline town wide. Burk has historically been hesitant about approving large housing developments; she voted against both the Crescent Parke and Leegate projects. She did support one such project—Don Knutson’s South King Street multi-family unit project—citing the positive foot traffic it could deliver for downtown businesses and the enhancements it could create for the surrounding area.
“We’ve got to get this development under control,” she said. “Moving forward we need to be doing things that will attract people and make sure that we have alternatives for people. It’s not just about rooftops. It’s got to be about jobs, entertainment, things that keep people here. That’s been lost this past year.”
Acknowledging that she is just one vote, Burk hopes she can find support from her council colleagues for a new rule that will do away with 11th-hour proffer changes from developers.
“This whole concept of proffering at the last minute is not the way to do government business. It almost comes across to the public as bribery. Throwing proffers in at the very last minute and [asking council members] what do you want so I can get your vote, that shouldn’t be how development is determined,” she said.
Burk would like to change the council’s bylaws so that all proffers must be set nine days prior to a public hearing and, if a change is desired by the developer in less time than that, the entire council must consent.
Knowing that it’s a different world she’s about to enter, Burk said being a mayor is all about ensuring the council comes to a consensus, whether or not she agrees with the majority opinion. But, just as she was when she first started on the council in 2004, she is excited about being behind some positive change for Leesburg.
“Leesburg is home to me, it’s home to a lot of us. While we want to keep that small-town feeling it’s not a small town anymore. We need to make sure the town is intertwined with jobs and entertainment and affordable housing and all the thing that make the town where you live the place where you want to be.”