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Bel Air's mayor gets her pleasure from serving residents of the 'Heart of Harford'

Bel Air Mayor Susan Burdette describes herself as a "glass is half-full" type of person.

Second in a series of Harford County municipal mayors profiles.

As mayor of Bel Air, Susan Burdette's official role is largely ceremonial, but that does not mean she doesn't have plenty to keep her busy in the Harford County seat.

Burdette's days, and often nights, are filled with activities and meetings related to town government and community matters.

Bel Air, which has a population of about 10,000 and covers three square miles, is the smallest of Harford's three municipalities.

The town, billed as "The Heart of Harford," is in the midst of the greater Bel Air area, with a combined population of about 130,000 people – more than half of the Harford County population of 250,000, Burdette said.

In addition to being the seat of county government, the town has Harford County's largest concentration of retail, anchored by Harford Mall; a thriving night life that draws from all over Harford and beyond; the trailhead for the most popular section of the Ma & Pa Trail and the busy University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health medical campus.

All that gives Burdette the sense that she represents the town, as well as its surrounding communities.

"We want people to live, work and play in the town, so anything we can do to improve that," Burdette, 62, said during a recent Town Hall interview.

Burdette, a native of Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, has lived in Bel Air since the late 1980s. She retired from the Harford County Public Library in 2010 after a 35-year career.

She didn't stay out of community life for long, running for her first term as town commissioner in 2011.

"I missed public service so much," she said. "Exactly one year to the day that I retired, they were having the election for commissioner."

Burdette was re-elected to the five-member Town Board in November 2015, and her fellow commissioners named her board chair/mayor after she and two new commissioners, Phil Einhorn and Brendan Hopkins, were sworn in to replace Robert Reier and Edward Hopkins, who both had served as mayors but decided not to seek re-election last year.

The other two veteran commissioners are Patrick Richards and Robert Preston. Preston and Richards will be up for re-election in 2017, as town elections are staggered for every two years.

'We' work as a group

Burdette said the commissioners work toward goals as a group.

"Whenever the town does something, everybody uses the word, 'we,'" she noted. "I would find it very hard to say I've done anything ... it's a whole team."

Burdette, for her part, stays busy interacting with residents, coordinating with department heads on various town initiatives, attending multiple functions throughout Bel Air and representing the town at the state level.

Burdette also serves on boards of various government and community organizations in Harford County that support children and families, and senior citizens.

She also is active in her church, St. Matthew Lutheran Church, of Bel Air.

"I'll have four clothing changes in a day," Burdette said, noting her outfits vary depending on the type of event.

"Everybody's planning fundraisers, so there's always stuff to do in abundance," she said.

Her husband of 39 years, Steve, served as a town commissioner from 1995 to 2000 and was the mayor during his last year in office. That makes the Burdettes the only husband and wife to have presided over the Bel Air Town Board.

Steve Burdette has also worked as an architect since 1975 and is currently with Whitney, Bailey, Cox & Magnani LLC, a Baltimore-based architectural, construction and engineering firm.

He said his wife is much more active than he was as a commissioner 20 years ago, which he credited in part to advances in communications technology, which allows town officials to exchange more information, and gives representatives of community groups more ways to contact elected officials.

"It just seems she's always being contacted about an event of some sort," he said.

Susan Burdette showed an Aegis reporter and photographer a list of her activities in June and July, a list that takes up a page and a half.

Town government activities include promoting public art projects around town, such as the Armory Marketplace mural on Lee Street, which is nearing completion, and future projects such as placing art in the windows of unoccupied storefronts on Main Street, as well as helping to promote wellness programs for town employees, promoting Bel Air Police Department summer camps and talking with residents on George and Thomas streets about upcoming street improvements.

"I knew quite a few people who live along Thomas Street who are looking forward to less traffic," Burdette said.

She represents Bel Air on the regional and state level in organizations such as the Maryland Municipal League, the Cecil/Harford chapter of the League and the state's Smart Growth Leaders Advisory Council.

Burdette recalled meeting Gov. Larry Hogan and First Lady Yumi Hogan at the MML's annual conference in Ocean City in late June.

"I told her about us being an arts and entertainment district and invited her to come to Bel Air," Burdette said.

Arts and entertainment

The Arts and Entertainment District designation comes from the Maryland State Arts Council. The designation is designed to attract, through tax incentives, artistic and cultural venues and programs to municipalities, according to the Arts Council website.

Bel Air has one of 24 such districts across the state.

Burdette met with one of the contributors to Bel Air's slew of public art – which includes murals, sculptures and the "Hearts of Harford" pieces scattered around town – while walking through downtown with an Aegis reporter and photographer.

Jack Pabis, of Frederick, was working on the brightly-colored mural he was painting on part of the wall surrounding the rear lot of the Bel Air Armory. Three of the five garages behind the Armory have been refurbished for community and town uses, and the lot is open to the community on the second Sunday of the month for the Belle Air Market. Pabis' mural faces Lee Street.

"That's beautiful, it really is," she told Pabis, who was fleshing out the people depicted on the mural, such as a young man playing a guitar and a little girl holding a balloon.

"It's amazing how much happiness murals bring to people," Burdette added.

"It has been my pleasure," Pabis said. "I'm sad that it's almost done."

Burdette also toured Frederick Ward Park, which is on the right-hand side of the Armory and is named for the late Bel Air engineering firm founder, who was a major booster of downtown Bel Air and rehabilitated several of its buildings. The small park has a stage for community theater productions, as well as a life-sized chessboard, and space for people to socialize or eat their lunches.

The mayor said more people have been seen using the park, as well as attending events at the Armory, which was built in 1915 as a Maryland National Guard armory. More than a century later, the town-owned facility is a hub for community gatherings and events that draw thousands of people to downtown Bel Air.

"It's a whole community building right now, and it belongs to the people of Bel Air," Burdette said.

Settling in Bel Air

Susan and Steve Burdette were living in Baltimore County when she started working for the Harford library system in 1975. They moved to the Major's Choice subdivision in 1986.

"Everything was convenient, and we felt like this would be a great place to have kids, because you have nice neighborhoods, you have nice schools; it just seemed like a very nice small town community, and that's what drew us," Steve Burdette said.

They have raised two sons, Bradford, 33, and Alex, 31. Alex Burdette has lived with multiple disabilities since birth, which makes it difficult for him to find work.

Susan Burdette noted her son "can write beautifully."

"He's always on time, he's never sick, he's never absent," Burdette said.

She and her husband have two rescue dogs, "chiweenies" named Josie and Turbo. The dogs are a mix of Chihuahua and dachshund.

Burdette would often meet her late father, R. Melvin Ulm, for lunch in town. He worked as a senior vice president for First National Bank – now M&T Bank – and he worked at the branch on Office Street in Bel Air.

Her father died of cancer around 2002. His treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma included going through clinical trials for various cancer therapies.

Shortly before he died, Burdette recalled, he father told her, "At least I hope from doing these trials, I've helped somebody."

She related that story to Gov. Hogan when she met him during the MML convention in June – Hogan is in remission from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which he battled in 2015.

"'When I see you I just can't help think about my dad saying, I hope I helped someone,'" Burdette recalled telling the governor. "He just got tears in his eyes, and he just hugged me."

Her mother, Virginia Ulm Mason, has since remarried – Burdette's stepfather is Ronald Mason. Burdette's mother suffered a stroke six years ago. She is paralyzed and living at the Stella Maris treatment facility in Baltimore County.

Burdette and her younger sister, Ellen Deugwillo, of Baldwin, visit their mother on a regular basis.

"I've learned a lot about elder care and cost," she said.

Burdette and her husband do not usually take vacations, although they have a cabin on Muddy Creek in Lower Chanceford Township, Pa., where they take their getaways.

The cabin is about 30 minutes' drive north from Bel Air.

"We like accomplishing things," she said. "I think that's where we get our joy."

Despite the challenges in her life, Burdette usually appears positive and upbeat. She describes herself as a "glass is half-full" type of person.

"I just always see the positive side of everything," she said. "I think I've always done that."

Different kind of 'mayor'

Even though she stays extremely busy with her community and family commitments, Burdette's mayoral duties do not include running the executive side of the town government, unlike her counterparts in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

"The mayor runs the town meetings," Burdette said of Bel Air. "It's more of a ceremonial type of mayor."

Bel Air has a council-manager style of government, in which a town administrator or town manager oversees all executive functions, including creating the budget, and reports to a board of commissioners, who have the final say on an array of municipal decisions.

Town Administrator Jesse Bane and the various department heads make recommendations regarding policy changes, approving contracts, implementing systemic plans, such as the 2016 Comprehensive Plan, and the commissioners vote yes or no.

"As far as power, I don't have any more power than any of the other commissioners," Burdette said.

She said the commissioners work well together. Each has an area that is his or her specialty, such as economic development, public safety, caring for seniors, or in Burdette's case, government budgets and the arts, which she draws from her experience with the library system.

"Everybody has their specialty and I think we admire that," she said.

Steve Burdette said the issues of concern for residents, such as traffic, development and public safety, have not changed since his time on the town board.

"That doesn't change," he said. "It's just the intensity of our lifestyles has changed, so I think the level of her involvement is much more than mine was."

He said Susan seeks his input on town issues, such as roads and water and sewer.

"When she makes decisions on things, she might ask me, but most of the time, she takes her own road," Steve Burdette said.

Susan Burdette said her husband "is the only one I can talk to about a lot of things."

"Not that they're confidential, but a lot of my friends aren't interested in government and politics and stormwater management," she said.

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