The city’s new ‘chief operating officer’

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As the new year dawns, issues continuing to face the Mayor Malik Evans’ administration include a stubbornly high rate of auto thefts, a lack of housing for the poor and homeless, a long-troubled school district and one of the highest poverty rates of any U.S. city.

Named deputy mayor as of Jan. 1, Michael Burns is clear about his role: It’s not principally helping Evans devise policies to deal with such ills, but instead as an assistant tasked with ensuring the city’s business is conducted smoothly.

“My primary role and what I expect,” says Burns, “is really to support the mayor in whatever ways that he needs me to do. A deputy mayor in this administration really functions as the city’s chief operating officer, so I have operational oversight for most city departments.”

Absent from Burns’ portfolio are the Rochester Police Department, which reports directly to the mayor, and the Rochester City School District, which falls under the city but functions quasi-independently.  

In short, Burns’ responsibilities include making sure trash is picked up, streets are plowed and salted when it snows, and other of the city’s myriad functions run as smoothly as possible. In a city of more than 200,000 facing the aforementioned ills, it is not a paltry task.

Burns brings to the job nearly two years’ experience as the city’s budget director, a position that Burns says has uniquely prepared him to step smoothly into the deputy mayor role.

“I can’t think of a better training ground to be deputy mayor than to first be budget director,” he says.

“As a budget director, you interact with all city departments,” Burns explains. “You really get an opportunity to view city government through a citywide lens. You develop relationships with not just department heads but multiple levels down in each department.”

Still, Burns says, his new position will require some adjustment.

“Whereas as budget director, I needed to understand funding needs to support each department, I think as deputy mayor it’s more of an oversight role.

“Collaboration is something that the mayor has been focused on from day one. So, my job is making sure that departments are collaborating across department; that as we’re making decisions, we give all the right departments a chance to weigh in so that we get to the best decisions that we can. It’s breaking down silos, quite frankly, which again, has been a focus of the Evans administration.”

Still, Burns notes, Evans focused not only on naming department heads who were competent in their own areas of expertise but also on putting together a mutually supportive team. So, breaking down silos is less of a challenge than it could have been.

“Two years in and starting our third year,” says Burns, “I’m fortunate to work with a really talented group of people but also a group of people who genuinely like one another and have grown into a mode of collaboration.”

Ongoing projects Burns names as falling under his purview, in addition to day-to-day operations, include continuation of a four-decade effort to improve and provide public access to the Genesee Riverway as well as other capital projects and oversight of the Office of Financial Empowerment, established by Evans last year. 

A completed part of the Roc the Riverway plan includes the Roc City Skate Park, which is accessed along the Genesee River Trailway. Repurposing of the long-neglected former subway tunnel under the Broad Street Aqueduct is underway. Proposed projects include a Front Street Promenade and plans for a state park at the base of High Falls.

The Office of Financial Empowerment intends to promote homeownership, help business startups and help sustain city businesses using funds provided by the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Burns has known since September that he would be named deputy mayor. He calls his predecessor in the job, Patrick Cunningham, a mentor who “helped me hit the ground running.”

Cunningham’s relations with him as budget director were “pretty seamless,” Burns says, which helped him easily assume his new responsibilities.

A New Jersey native, Burns largely grew up in Greece, where the family moved after his father was transferred to the Rochester area.

After graduating from Aquinas Institute in 1995, he attended St. John Fisher University, graduating with B.S. in accounting in 1999. A CPA, Burns then went to work for KPMG. In 2005, he was hired by Harris Interactive, where he worked for nearly a decade, spending five and half years as vice president of investor relations and external reporting.

After Harris Interactive was acquired by Nielsen in 2014, Burns went to work for RTS, previously known as the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority, where he stayed until being tapped by Evans as the city’s budget director.

Burns and his wife, Beth, a teacher in the Fairport school system, have owned a home in downtown Rochester for the past 12 years. A runner for the past 15 years, Burns has completed two marathons and a half marathon. Now in his late 40s, he confesses that running was easier when he first took up the sport. But his energy on the job has not flagged.

As deputy mayor, Burns says, “I’m ready to do anything the mayor might require of me.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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