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City manager embraces Cedar Springs' intimacy

Many people would be uncomfortable having everyone in town know their salary and handing out their cell phone number to take evening and weekend calls.

Not Christine Burns. She welcomes the scrutiny that being a city manager brings.

“The part that I like the best about it is everything is out in the open,” said Burns, who since 2007 has led Cedar Springs, a city of 3,500 residents northeast of Grand Rapids. “Everybody knows what people make. They know what I make. They know what my performance appraisal is. They know my strengths and they know my weaknesses.”

City business and government leaders praise Burns, 42, for her listening skills, honesty and ability to handle resident complaints.

“This is her first shot at being a city manager,” said Mayor Charlie Watson. “I feel that she’s done a fantastic job.

“I think she’s very good at interacting with the residents,” he said. “She’s a great communicator. She can diffuse volatile situations.”

Kyle Curtis, owner of Festida Foods in Cedar Springs, said Burns is forward-thinking.

“I don’t know what the definition of a city manager is, or even the job description for a city manager,” he said. “But I’d bet you’d want one to have passion for the city. And I think that’s what Christine represents. She’s just got a great passion for the city of Cedar Springs.”

Festida, which makes chips and tortillas, has outgrown its facility and is buying a new building in Grand Rapids because it was less expensive than expanding its current location and there was no space available in Cedar Springs.

Burns’ response illustrates how helpful she is, Curtis said. When it became clear that Festida couldn’t stay, she put him in touch with contacts in Grand Rapids who could help make the move go smoothly.

Burns, who grew up in Clare, never planned to be a city administrator. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University, she couldn’t find a job and returned home with her new husband Bill, whom she had known since age 9.

She got a job as Clare’s deputy clerk/treasurer. The position paid $6.03 an hour, but she was happy when she got the job in July 1991.

After 14 years in Clare, Burns, in 2005, got a job as clerk, treasurer and assistant manager for the villageof Oxford in northern Oakland County.

Cedar Springs turned out to be a perfect fit when she decided to take the next step in her career. “It’s been perfect so far. Same-sized community (as Clare), same demographics,” Burns said. “Just a very small, hometown feel. People would give you the shirt off their back, and that really resonates with me.”

The city has about 20 full-time employees. It has a $2 million general fund budget and a total budget of $6.9 million.

During her tenure, the city has landed grant dollars to build a new staging area along the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail, a popular route for joggers, bicyclists and snowmobilers. A downtown facade improvement project that was under way when Burns started has been completed. And Veterans Memorial Park was created with private donations, honoring a Cedar Springs native who died in 2005 during the Iraq War.

But, like other Michigan municipalities, Cedar Springs has had to make budget cuts.

The city has eliminated several part-time positions and is now requiring the popular Red Flannel Festival to reimburse many municipal costs associated with the event.

City employees understand, Burns said. “We’re trying to be good stewards of the public’s money.”

And if anyone has a problem, Burns is willing to listen.

“You can’t go to the grocery store without getting into a conversation with somebody,” said Burns, who’s not complaining about life as a public servant -- although she acknowledged feeling a bit uncomfortable about being approached while wearing sweat pants, a baseball cap and a ponytail in her hair during a quick stop at the store.

“I can’t imagine it any other way,” she  said. “I guess I’ve never known anything different, other than working at a chicken restaurant when I was 16.”

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