Alumni in Action: Ian Baltutis ’08 on leading through a time of crisis

Burlington's youngest mayor talks about managing a city through a time of crisis with shifting priorities, limited resources and how challenges can present opportunities for long-term solutions.

As the youngest person to serve in the role of mayor for the City of Burlington, Ian Baltutis ’08 has had his work cut out for him. Prior to the pandemic, Baltutis and his team were focused on the future of Burlington by working to grow and improve programs including entrepreneurial and economic development, community equity and social justice, youth opportunities and equal housing. When COVID-19 reached North Carolina and the Burlington community, Baltutis and his team shifted their focus to the daily and immediate needs of the residents.

“That transition from long-term impact to short-term need has been a major shift,” Baltutis said. “COVID-19 has completely reshaped the way I serve my community of Burlington.” Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the basic physiological and safety needs must be met before moving on to others.

The widespread impact of the virus has tested the resilience of the surrounding cities and towns as well. Local leaders collaborated in new ways; sharing what resources and talents they could to help their neighbors. Compared to other natural disasters or crises, however, the scope of this pandemic is unparalleled.

“This crisis has a scale like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Normally, when a hurricane or ice storm hits our city, we can look to our neighboring cities and states for material and financial help,” Baltutis said. “This time we are all battling this with equally scarce resources. We are all teaming up to share what we can and innovate ways to do more with less. None of it is easy and all of it causes new challenges to arise daily.”

Those challenges can also present opportunities for new developments. Necessity is the mother of invention and innovation, and out of this particular challenge has come new ways of thinking, communicating and engaging with the public. Baltutis has worked on improving and strengthening the lines of communication across the board and has examined new ways to utilize the city’s resources to support the community. Additionally, they have shifted to virtual meetings and online public discussions.

Although there have been some security and infrastructure challenges through this shift, Baltutis says, “these new ways of hosting and engaging with the public in discussion will likely be a positive outcome of this crisis that enables a wider breadth of our community to transparently engage with their representatives in government.” Additionally, he hopes this technology can lead to greater access and diversity among elected officials.

The expanded transportation network the city of Burlington has been working on for years is turning out to be an important investment during this time as well. “Our new network of sidewalks, multiuse paths, greenways, bicycle boulevards, bus routes and trails has become a wonderful escape for many people seeking physical and mental relief during this crisis,” Baltutis explains. Not only do these spaces serve as a place of respite, but they also allow the community to connect with one another and explore new methods of transportation.

Baltutis hopes this exploration and communing leads to a sustained appreciation of the city’s outdoor spaces and the importance of community connection long into the future. He explains, “I hope this continues afterwards granting everyone more opportunities to interact with their neighbors and fellow residents in a more personal and meaningful way, all while enjoying the community that we call home.”