City Commission candidate profile: Leslie Soden
During the 2013 Lawrence City Commission elections, Leslie Soden waited and waited.
She waited until the very last day to file for a seat on the commission, and then trailed her competitors badly in fundraising and organization. She squeaked through the primary by winning the sixth and final spot. Then, she almost did something no other candidate in recent memory has done: charge from the final spot in the primary to win a seat on the commission. As the returns came in on election night 2013, Soden held the third and final spot all night long, until the final ballot box was counted. Terry Riordan beat her by 95 votes and outspent her campaign by several thousand dollars.
This year, it didn’t take Soden nearly as long to decide to run again. Soden said in the past two years she has seen the commission “double down on a form of trickle down economics.” She said tax incentives haven’t been well thought out, and a project she cautioned against two years ago — Rock Chalk Park — has created large amounts of distrust with the commission.
Address: 715 Connecticut St.
Occupation: owner of Pet Minders pet care business
Education: Bachelor of Science in anthropology from Kansas State University, and Bachelor of Science in computer information systems from Friends University.
She thinks city commissioners failed badly on the process for the new sports complex. She said if the idea was just put to a vote as a standard city project, much like the library expansion was, she thinks it would have won at the polls. But that vote never came, and the process ended up being a public-private partnership that involved nearly $12 million worth of infrastructure work that didn’t go through the city’s bid process.
“The library was an example of a project that had a good process,” Soden said. “Contrast that with this deal where the details are so murky they are trying to figure it out after it already has been built.”
Seeing the system
Soden has owned a local pet-sitting business, Pet Minders, since 2006. She started it after she took a European vacation to clear her head after realizing she wasn’t happy with her career in the information technology industry. She had a hard time finding anyone to care for her dog while she was away, and a new business was born.
She doesn’t expect to take care of any cats or dogs during City Commission meetings, but she does think the experience she has gained from the business will help her. For one, she sees multiple parts of the community by driving all over town, all day long caring for the pets of clients in different neighborhoods. She also said the business fostered a spirit that will be useful.
“It takes a combination of initiative and courage to run a business,” Soden said. “But you have to balance it with pragmatism. I can think of many pie-in-the-sky ideas, but you have to bring them back to the real world at some point.”
Soden said her background as a computer systems analyst also has been helpful. She said that’s helped her view Lawrence City Hall as a system, and she thinks she has found the system’s glitch.
“The City Commission is one of the weakest links,” said Soden, who once attended nearly a full-year’s worth of commission meetings when she was president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association while the neighborhood was fighting a proposal for a multistory hotel that bordered the neighborhood.
Soden said she’s observed that the City Commission often will create plans or public policy, and then routinely start granting exceptions or variances to the policies on a case-by-case basis. She said often the variances flow to larger, well-connected businesses, while more ordinary mom-and-pop businesses follow the rules as they are written.
“I think this City Commission is business unfriendly because it doesn’t play by a single play book,” Soden said.
Soden is a member of the city-county appointed Joint Economic Development Council. She said the city needs to redefine its economic development policies to ensure that economic development money is spent for the creation of permanent, full-time jobs with benefits. She said too much of the city’s economic development incentives recently have been spent on “hotels and luxury apartments” that aren’t likely to produce the type of jobs the community seeks.
“The type of incentives we have offered to Amarr Garage doors and Grandstand Glasswear are good examples of how economic development incentives can work well,” said Soden, referring to a pair of manufacturers in the East Hills Business Park that have added workers with the help of tax abatements.
In other issues, Soden said:
• “Deferred maintenance” of police facilities needs to be addressed. She said she was uncertain why some of the police facilities were allowed to deteriorate to the point that they have. But Soden said before the city makes a multimillion-dollar investment in a new police headquarters facility, the community needs to do a review of its entire “emergency service system.” She said that includes police, fire, the county jail and the hospital.
Soden said a particular emphasis needs to be placed on evaluating the mental health needs in the community because it currently is a “glaring hole in the system.”
“A lot of what drives our emergency services is mental health demand,” Soden said. “If we can do things to reduce our demand for police services, that’s going to put our community way ahead.”