After 40 years of municipal leadership in Winchester, Mayor Ed Burtner said last week he is stepping aside.
The day before the start of the candidate filing period for the 2022 election, Burtner told the city commission he would not be seeking a fifth term as mayor.
“It really was a family decision,” Burtner said in an interview last Friday at his office.
The 70-year-old mayor said he has spent many nights and weekends away from his family, and he wants more time with them. He would like to take vacations, not just the usual three or four-day weekends, with his wife Carolyn, sons Bradley and Wesley, and Wes’s wife and four children.
“It was unfair to the family,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of sacrifice … .”
On paper, being Winchester’s mayor is a part-time job that pays about $12,000 a year. In reality, he’s at City Hall almost every day, often from early in the morning until late in the evening, and the job often involves weekends and holidays.
The mayor doesn’t keep strict hours, but his work is “certainly more than 40” and “always has been,” he said.
Statutorily, the mayor’s duties are limited. He presides over city commission meetings and has a vote. He makes board appointments with the city commission’s approval. And he has the authority to declare a state of emergency, something he has had to do too often in recent years because of the coronavirus pandemic and severe flooding.
It’s the city manager, Mike Flynn, who is Winchester’s CEO and runs the day-to-day operations of city government.
“I try not to interfere with the job of city manager,” which he described as “difficult.”
“I did that job for 25 years, so I know,” Burtner said.
But mayoral leadership is about more than the job description; it’s about influence.
Flynn said in a text message that while the general public may view the office of mayor as a “figurehead position,” that is “definitely not true” in Burtner’s case.
He said he has worked with Burtner during his time as general manager of Winchester Municipal Utilities and city manager, and “he has served his community tirelessly” during his four terms, “a true testament of going above and beyond!” he said.
Burtner takes the role of mayor seriously.
“I think it’s important for the mayor to be available and accessible,” he said.
He goes to several events each week besides the city board meetings, and almost every day, he’s in his office at City Hall overlooking the courthouse square or outside talking to citizens.
Life of service
In the last decade, the term “career politician” has taken on a negative connotation, as though government were the one profession where experience doesn’t matter.
Burtner’s entire career has been one of public service.
“I left home when I was 17 to join the Marine Corps,” said the Vietnam veteran and former Virginia farm boy who postponed college until after his military service. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public service at the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife.
After a brief stint in city planning in Knoxville, he came to Kentucky to work for the Big Sandy Area Development Center in Prestonsburg, then moved to Harlan.
“I believe I was the first, last and only city administrator Harlan’s ever had,” he said.
In 1979, he moved to the Appalachian Regional Commission in Pikeville.
Then in 1981, he came to Winchester to become the city manager.
“My first day on the job was the Monday after the railroad tore down the depot that Saturday morning,” he said.
It was a job he held for a quarter-century until 2006, when he ran for the first of four terms as mayor.
During his time in office, the city grew and attracted new industry, retail and restaurants, became a model for Main Street historic preservation, built a new sewage treatment plant, improved its infrastructure and streets.
But when asked about the city’s proudest accomplishments, Burtner doesn’t mention projects. Those, he said, are usually collaborations involving multiple governments — the city, county, state and federal governments, the school district — and the private sector.
Rather, it’s the collaboration itself that he’s proud of.
“I think we all have to work together,” he said. “City and county governments are always clashing, but I’ve worked very hard and done my very best to have a sense of coöperation among all the various units of government and with the public and the business community and with the nonprofits.”
If local government had to pay for all the services nonprofits — including churches and faith-based agencies — provide, it couldn’t afford it, he said.
“This is a very giving, generous community,” he said, and its success takes “everybody pulling in the right direction.”
The other thing he’s worked hard on is improving communication, he said, and being “a cheerleader for the community.”
“This is my county, this is my city, and I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a wonderful community,” he said.
And while it has been a privilege to serve Winchester, he thought that four terms were enough.
“I’ve been asked the question, ‘Are you in favor of term limits?’ And I’m not. I think the voters should have the opportunity to vote me in and to vote me out. But I do think that at some point, it’s time to say that you need to step aside and encourage other people to step up,” he said.
He was asked if there is anyone he has in mind that he would like to see as his successor.
“There’s nobody in particular,” he said. “We have good people in city government, on the commission… and there are good people in the community.”
At the time this interview was published, only one candidate, City Commissioner JoEllen Reed, had filed to run for mayor, but Ralph Harrison, a businessman who ran against Burtner last time, intends to run again.
Asked whether he was retiring from politics forever, Burtner wouldn’t say.
“What I’ve said is that I will not be a candidate for mayor in 2022,” he said.