By Scott Schaefer
Burien’s new City Manager Adolfo Bailon has been on the job for less than a month, and he’s working diligently to learn as much as he can about the city and its residents, as well as his new team.
As we previously reported, Bailon started Aug. 8, after going through an extensive recruitment process that ended up with him being one of five finalists.
He replaced Brian Wilson, who resigned Jan. 15, 2022. Parks Director Carolyn Hope served as interim manager until Bailon started his new job.
He was selected after a national search, which resulted in more than 50 applications from a large pool of candidates. Those were whittled down to five finalists, and Bailon was selected to be the new City Manager by the Burien City Council on June 30, 2022.
Bailon is the first person of color to hold the City Manager job in Burien. His salary is $215,000.
We got a chance to catch up with him for an interview at Town Square Park on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 31, 2022, and below is an edited transcript of our roughly 40-minute conversation:
Thoughts so far after less than a month on the job
Q: You started the job August 8 – how’s it going so far?
A: “Great. Probably the best transition I’ve had and I think it has a lot to deal with the team that’s in place … like everyone is just passionate, committed and has been very helpful in the transition here.”
Q: So what’s the highlight been in less than a month for you so far?
A: “I think just learning about the community, you know, there’s only so much that one can read about it and talk to a few folks, but the real highlight comes with walking the ground and meeting people. Like I walk around, I say hello to people. Sometimes people look at me and they’re like ‘who are you and why are you talking to me?’ But that’s my nature. And then sometimes these spark a conversation with someone and then they just they tell you stuff. So the highlight for me has been getting fewer ‘What are you looking at?’ looks and more of like ‘How’s it going?’ So it’s been very warm and welcoming, it’s just been great.”
Q: And what’s been the most unexpected or possibly worst moment so far?
A: “I don’t think I’ve had a worst moment, but the unexpected is definitely how welcoming the community has been and how open they have been to just having conversations.”
Q: Why did you want to become Burien’s new City Manager?
A: “…it was the challenge and opportunity. One – that I’m a challenge person; it’s part of my personality. Like, if there’s something to do, you have to do it and it’s always not just me doing it, but working with the team to do whatever needs to get done. And there are challenges that come with being in a city the size of Burien that’s experiencing growth, experiencing challenges of being adjacent to a much larger city and those are the types of challenges that I I felt I was ready for in my career that I wanted to deal with, and quite frankly, I’m enjoying the challenges of being in a diverse community. My last community was not quite as diverse and so I had missed the different languages of different cultures, just everything in the nuances – different people from different parts of the world.”
Q: And speaking of diversity, what’s your ethnicity?
A: “My family’s originally from Mexico, from southern Mexico. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but raised in the Mexican culture. Yeah, growing up, eating Mexican food and eating everything that is available in LA and oddly enough, as a kid it wasn’t something that I appreciated until I became an adult and was able to reflect on my childhood. And that was the diversity that I was raised in, like my neighborhood is now referred to as historic Filipinotown, and it was not Filipinotown then. I know now why it became historic Filipinotown – just the population that exists there. And we are adjacent to little Bangladesh and we are very close to the Iranian community. And just within the Latino community itself, it was the smaller groups of Latinos from just different cultures may share a similar you know skin tone. But cultures and languages and nuances are very different, so I appreciated that. And it’s here. It’s here in Burien.”
Q: And I presume you speak Spanish?
A: “I do – I’m fluent in Spanish.”
His view on the top issues facing Burien
Q: So what do you think are the three most important issues facing the city of Burien, and how will you address them?
A: “Picking the top three, you know that’s a…it’s a challenge all unto its own. I would probably go with growth, of cities experiencing growth, not just in land, but also in population.
“I would say the budget, the allocation of resources, whether it’s inequitable allocation or just how the budget is created … and where revenues are coming from.
“And the third thing I would probably say is quality of life. And that ties into the budget and it ties into growth. So all three are directly connected.
“Those would be the top three that I would point to right off the bat.”
On Public Safety/Crime
Q: A lot of people are concerned about public safety and crime in Burien. A lot of people think that’s the number one issue. So do you think Burien is a safe place to live, and if so, why or why not?
A: “Yes, absolutely, it’s a safe place. But, like every city, village, town or hamlet across the country, there are issues there. There’s crime. Unfortunately, you just can’t get away from certain things, regardless of where someone lives. But invariably, it’s very safe. I actually live here, right next door to where we’re doing our interview, and I walk at night all the time. I feel very comfortable doing it. I’ve spoken to our (police) chief. He jogs across the city at night and I did a ride-along this past weekend with our Sheriff’s Department and felt very safe being in the car with the officer, not knowing where we were going to go, what call was going to come in. And I did see our chief jogging at night. So it wasn’t just him saying I jogged throughout the city. No, I got proof – we saw him and I waved and he waved back.
“So that’s not to say that crime is (not) an issue. That’s not to say that they are not correct, and that they’re not sharing the truth. But there is a distinction between the truth and someone’s truth. And I say that because I do want to remain respectful of people’s opinions when people see what people say and then also share with them. Like I understand, I get it. These are facts on a citywide level and this is why we feel that Burien is very safe to live and to eat, sleep and play…but I do want to remain respectful of people and their truth.”
On talking with residents
Q: Have you been hearing from residents since you started?
A: “Direct answer, factual answer – no, not directly to me. That’s not to say that folks have not reached out to City Hall and to the Police Department, so I am aware that people reach out and share their concerns. So I’m not lying when I say that I haven’t heard from them because people haven’t directly said ‘Hey Adolfo, this is what’s going on.’ But I am aware of reports that are made to the Police Department, reports that are made to my colleagues at City Hall. And, you know, we look into it just like everything. And if there’s a way for us to help procedurally with the process, if we’re allowed by state law and so forth, we will do what we can, absolutely.”
On businesses and business owners
Q: Let’s talk a little about Burien businesses and business owners. I hear from a lot of them that they’re concerned about crime, homelessness and drug addicts, and that some people think that the city has never done enough for businesses to make them feel safer, and I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on helping the businesses and the owners?
A: “I do. My truth is that I do feel that the city has heard comments and requests for help from the business community. And then I do see the response, like, you know, storefront officer Mark Hayden, mental health experts that are working with Hayden and working with our fire response. And so I see that there are responses there. Government isn’t really meant to to move very fast and I share and I say that because it should be a strategic response to address underlying issues as opposed to an immediate response that might be disrespectful of the taxpayers money, and to just throw money at something that won’t solve the problem. It’ll solve that one issue, not the problem as a whole. So to the truth of individuals who may say problems are out of control, things are blowing up, I believe that they believe that is the case and there is some truth to what they’re saying that there are issues that need to be addressed. But I do feel strongly that the city is working with individuals, maybe not as quickly as they would like. Again, the city moves at a pace where it has to be respectful of taxpayers money to fix the big problem as opposed to just one issue. Not the symptom, but the cure. But there are steps that are being taken to address the issue and I do expect to continue to work with the businesses to address the long term issues because they’re not wrong, and that issues exist and need to be addressed. We’re here to help. Businesses have the right to understand Burien’s concerns.”
Q: I’ve also heard through some of these business people that some are proposing to hire a private security firm to police the downtown district. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: “Businesses have a right to try to find a solution to a problem that exists in one way or another. I feel it’s my job to work with those business owners and I am meeting with those business owners very soon. I’m not here to say that’s wrong. I’m here to say I want to understand. I’m new to Burien so I want to understand why they feel that is the appropriate response to share my experience with. Are there cities in different states where there is a form of that that currently exists? But my goal for now is to understand what their base solution is and how to best get to that solution? It could be that their proposed plan is the best plan. It could be that it’s a variation of that plan. I just don’t know and want to meet with them so that I understand their base issues of concern and then work with them to get to a solution.”
On the DESC Affordable Housing Project
Q: What are your thoughts on the DESC Affordable Housing Pilot Project?
A: “You know the homelessness situation … is directly affecting quality of life for everyone that is not in the situation that the people that are homeless are in. So it’s it seems like – from an outsider that is now an insider that is working with the community – it seems like it’s a project that is working to address those underlying issues that are hoping to make everything else better in the city.
“My understanding is that 30% of the space within the building is going to be allocated specifically for Burien, so it’s looking like it’s going to help the underlying issue, but also overtly help the underlying issue here directly in Burien.”
On Burien’s financial health
Q: So have you gotten your head wrapped around the financials of the city? How is the city’s financial health?
A: “It’s good. Cash flow is good. The budget is good. I know that in the future, you know, like costs go up, issues are it’s going to become apparent at some point and no reports have been shared with the Council and made public about the rise of costs versus the caps on revenues; you just can’t raise property taxes here like you can in other places. So there is that challenge in the medium length future that has to be addressed, but for now it’s not in a terrible place. It’s not in like the most pristine place possible, but it’s in a good place. It’s in a good place.”
On arts in Burien
Q: Any thoughts on the arts in Burien? I know that the city just got approved as a Creative District. What do you know about that and what are your thoughts on the arts?
A: “I only learned recently about the arts (creative) district. I think it’s wonderful. I do firmly believe that the arts is integral to a community, the flourishing of a community. I was involved in the arts before joining the team here in Burien. In my previous position, I pushed for and created what’s called the arts and Culture Commission in my last town because we had a wealth of artists and we wanted to make sure that it was recognized; one that they were there and two, to bring arts into the economic development of the community. So I feel very strongly that art should be a part of a conversation.”
Q: What are your thoughts on building a new Burien Community Center or theater?
A: “I think that speaks to the greater topic – the bigger conversation within the community. It’s having that conversation with the community, understanding what the community wants through engagement with them. And it could be that the community then gives a 100% response: ‘we want a Community Center’ or it could be that we would like one, but we don’t need one yet. You know, there are all these other issues to address. I feel it’s important to work with the community to make sure that the projects that are immediately pursued are addressed by the Council and then the Council gives direction to staff. But those projects are identified through community engagement.”
On communication & being a public figure
Q: What is your communication strategy for the broader Burien population? Are you going to do anything new or different?
A: “To borrow a phrase from several of my friends that are active in the military, it’s ‘boots on the ground.’ I shared this with Emily (Inlow-Hood, Burien’s Communications Officer) on our walk over here where she was at a school yesterday and engaging directly with people. It is attending community events, talking to people there, going to coffee shops throughout town and striking up a conversation. I don’t make it a point to tell folks that I work for the city because then they put themselves in a position of ‘why are you asking?’ I’m more guarded, so it’s more of a casual conversation. People tend to be more willing to share that way. So it’s doing a lot of what I just mentioned and then a lot of what Emily has been doing and what her team has been doing and just making sure that staff remain engaged and it’s easy for me to share that because that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. I’m stepping into a situation where the team wants to hear from the community and they actively engage, ask questions. And so it’s a lot of what I like to do, only everyone is already doing it, so it’s very helpful.”
Q: I’m curious, have you been recognized yet by somebody who came up to you and said, ‘hey, you’re the new city manager’?
A: “Maybe twice? They’ve actually both been positive. One occurred yesterday – I was walking to a meeting … and someone walking down the road said, ‘Hey Adolfo, how’s it going? I saw this thing and wanted to say hi’ and I said ‘great thanks.’ I met he and his friend and shook hands. But that was just for two minutes and then I was running late to the meeting, so I had to skedaddle. And the other time was at a coffee shop here, I walked in and someone just said hi. They saw me online. I think they may have seen me during the interview process and then they just said ‘congratulations, looking forward to seeing or hearing more about you.’ So…negative? No negative interactions, no negatives yet.”
Q: How do you feel overall about being a recognizable figure in our community?
A: “You know in my entire career, I’ve dedicated my career to public service. So I may have mentioned this to the Council and the staff during the interview process, where early on in my life I thought I’m going to be President of the United States and so I knew early on that scandals happen with stupid things are done by weird people. And it’s just not something that I ever, you know…it just wasn’t for me. Like I always had a pretty decent 4-foot-10 sized woman in my head that I called my mother that says ‘don’t be stupid,’ like ‘knock it off.’ And so she is a very good moral compass for me and continues to be so. I have had instances where people are very angry and worked up about an issue and will approach me in a certain way. I’m not somebody who just takes verbal abuse, so I will tell them, knock it off, let’s have a conversation, and if they’re unwilling to have a decent conversation, then I just remove myself from the situation. There’s no engaging with somebody who’s visibly angry or who doesn’t want to discuss facts. But I will before I leave tell them ‘when you cool off, call me in the office’ and then we could talk. Some people have taken me up on that offer and developed into friendships. So that has happened. So some people have accepted it and we’ve become friends after that. Other people I have just never heard from and will just give me a sour look as I walk down the road, but I do strongly believe that public servants are there to serve the public but not to be abused by them, and that there’s nowadays there’s a fine line with the Internet and the sharing of information online and the unfortunate sharing of inaccurate information online and so it makes it difficult. But yeah, I always do engage.”
What impresses him about Burien
Q: What has most impressed you about Burien? Is there one thing?
A: “I think it’s its openness to differences. There’s some cities that I’ve visited that are suffering from self-segregation and it’s just people that inadvertently move to a neighborhood because that’s where people that look like them live or where they just feel comfortable. I think there’s less of that in Burien, there’s more of a willingness to just intermingle and intermix at events like at the Music in the Park series, you see people just hanging around, different skin colors all over the place. So I’m very impressed by that and I enjoy seeing that.”
Will he make any changes to city staffing?
Q: Are you planning on making any changes, say to city staffing or perhaps new initiatives?
A: “I look at this as a team effort. I feel that someone that comes into my position, someone in my career choice in my position, comes into a new place and starts making changes, that may not be the right person for the job because they’ve spent less time listening and understanding and more time trying to implement a cookie-cutter solution that they think fits. Every place is different. Every place has similar issues – public safety issues, homelessness, lack of resources. But those issues affect the community differently in a different place and people think differently in different places. So I do feel strongly that someone who comes in that role needs to listen for extended periods of time first. Then develop a plan with the team through direction from the Council. The Council is the boss, they are the voice of the people elected by the people. They set the overall tone. They tell someone like me or in my position what they would like. What vision they want implemented, and then it’s my job to present options through advice and counsel from the team, so that’s my role. That’s how I see the team operating and I do feel that any changes that occur within a year period, I think they’re there. Change is initiated by the manager. Without understanding the community first, I think that would be premature.”
Q: I presume you’ve met with every Councilmember…have you met with every staff member?
A: “Yeah, I’ve met with all the directors, I’ve met with all the Councilmembers, we have one-on-one meetings with each Councilmember. I have gone out in the field with our Police Department just to see what it’s like for them while they’re on duty. I have gone out with our code enforcement officers to see what they see and how they do their job and how they interact with the community, and I’m going to continue to do that because I want to know what it’s like, not just for department directors and department managers, but what it’s like for people out in the field. It’s difficult. I’m in just now in my fourth week, so three solid weeks and then a half, so I’ve only had a limited amount of time to grasp the issues that exist from meeting with certain people, but as time goes on, my goal is to meet with everyone, talk to everyone – be on a first-name basis with everyone.”
He has an ‘open door policy’
Q: What is your policy on meeting with and hearing from residents?
A: “I have an open door policy so anyone can call and stop by at anytime. That’s just how it is, how it’s always been with my colleagues and with the community. I don’t think that I preface what I’m going to say with this. My mentor Rich Corbel – who is a retired manager and one of my professors in grad school – he ingrained in me something that he had learned through his profession and he’s just like, ‘look, there’s different types of managers. The more successful ones are the ones that understand that they are not the guy or the gal. They are the person in charge of working with the people that were elected to do the job.’ And I say that because that has resonated with me if I feel that if I had town halls on my own and then you know, I’m not the mayor, the mayor’s the mayor, the councilmembers are the councilmembers. And it’s not about me. It is about them as the representatives of the community. They as the voice of the people that elected them and the city and I’m just a member of the team that’s looking to implement their vision, so I’m not the guy, I’m just a civil servant looking to do the work.”
Q: Any closing comments that you’d like to share with our readers?
A: “I just want to highlight the open door policy. Even if the conversation topic is not one that people think I want to have. I always tell folks don’t make my decision for me. Come and talk to me. If I don’t like the topic, I will tell you I don’t like the topic, but don’t not come and talk to me. Don’t – you know, pick up the phone and neglect to call me because you think I’m not willing to have that conversation…”
If you’d like to talk or meet with Bailon, you can reach him at (206) 241-4647 or [email protected].