Politics & Government

Joel Burns resigns from Fort Worth City Council

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns resigned Tuesday night, saying he is heading back to school.

Burns, 45, said he will serve on the council until a replacement is chosen.

But last week he accepted an invitation to pursue a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. It begins in July and runs through May of 2015.

“I love serving on the City Council. It has been something unlike anything I’ve ever done and I feel very much in the groove,” said Burns, a council member since 2008. “With this specialized [Masters] program, I’m going to be with some of the world’s smartest, brightest people … who care a lot about their communities.

“I’m not running off and never coming back,” he said. “This can give me additional tools to serve in whatever capacity I return in.”

Choking back tears, Burns resigned Tuesday night, giving fellow council members and Mayor Betsy Price time to add the District 9 council job to the May 10 city and school ballot. His term would have expired next June.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she is proud of his acceptance into the program, though she said the city will miss his service to the community.

“I certainly hate to see him go. Joel always serves from the heart. He is passionate about his constituents, but even more he is passionate about the city as a whole,” said Price.

Burns, a real estate agent who had served on the Fort Worth Planning and Zoning Commission, was sworn into office at his home in January 2008, winning the post after then-Councilwoman Wendy Davis resigned to run for the Texas Senate.

During his tenure, he said he realized serving on the council is such a full-time job that he closed his real estate practice in 2010 and eventually gave up his real estate license in 2013.

Through the years, he has drawn national attention in his political post, particularly for his efforts to encourage people to fight bullying.

But he knows he will be remembered by many for one thing: His emotional, tearful 2010 speech during a City Council meeting when he encouraged youths struggling with being gay to stay strong because “life will get so, so, so much better.”

A video of the speech drew so much attention that Burns was featured on national news programs and even invited to the White House to participate in anti-bullying panels.

He has encouraged youths and grown-ups alike to stay strong and true to themselves, and received countless emails and phone calls from people who watched the video of his speech that ended up going almost viral.

“That moment has changed my life in ways I never thought,” he said. “I have had people from around the world contact me. … I still get someone contacting me every single week.

“It has been hard on us, getting phone calls in the middle of the night … and getting people connected with professional resources, but it has been an amazing experience for me.”

Price said Burns’ fight against bullying gave Fort Worth national recognition in the anti-bullying campaign.

“He has helped put Fort Worth on the map as far as being a frontrunner on anti-bully, and worked closely with Fort Worth ISD on their INOK [It’s Not Okay] program and has been a good spokesman and a great example for young folks,” Price said

Gaining new skills

Burns last year opted against running for the Texas State Senate District 10 job that Davis is leaving to pursue a bid for governor.

“I chose in part to not run for the state Senate to stay home and be supportive of J.D.,” he said. “Then this opportunity came up … and he said he’s not going to be around a lot and I should do this.”

Burns’ longtime partner is J.D. Angle, a political consultant working with Davis’ gubernatorial campaign. Angle’s brother is Matt Angle, a Democratic political consultant leading the Democratic Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee, who once worked for former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas. Frost has been a guest lecturer at the Kennedy School through the years.

The opportunity to attend the prestigious program at the Harvard Kennedy School, formerly known as the John F. Kennedy School of Government, was something he just couldn’t pass up.

“I took a three-week course there in 2010 and it was an incredible program,” Burns said. “It gave me lots of ideas.

“My intention is to go have an incredible experience … and come back and find a way to [use those new skills]. It’s hard and it’s expensive, … but we are going to figure out how to make it happen.”

Looking ahead

Burns said there’s still time to work on some unfulfilled goals on the City Council, working on various issues such as transportation initiatives.

He said “there’s a wide range of issues” he will be talking to his council colleagues about that he hopes they can address.

He said he doesn’t know if he will serve in public office again. But he doesn’t rule it out.

“When I get done next May, I’ll have a much better idea of what I can do,” he said.

Star-Telegram Reporter Caty Hirst contributed to this report.