Incoming mayor Jennifer Ananda excited for ‘a year of change’
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
When Jennifer Ananda dropped off her forms to become a Lawrence City Commission candidate in 2017, she said she was literally shaking.
“It’s scary to put yourself out there,” Ananda said. “You’re saying ‘Please tell me that you find me appropriate for this.’ It’s very public and it’s very vulnerable.”
Ananda need not have worried, as she finished second in the election, earning her not only a spot on the commission but a four-year term and the position of vice mayor this year. And come Tuesday, if city commissioners stick with tradition as expected, she is set to become Lawrence’s next mayor.
Originally from the small town of Girard, Ananda, 38, moved to Lawrence in 2000 to attend the University of Kansas. Ananda said she’s learned some lessons in her first two years in office, and she’s excited to hold the center seat at City Hall as the commission begins what she feels will be a year of change.
While at KU, Ananda earned undergraduate degrees in film and English and later graduated with a law degree and a master’s in social work. Ananda is currently the Title IX coordinator for Emporia State University, where she implements Title IX regulations and investigates complaints of sexual misconduct. She formerly held a similar position at KU and continues to teach sexual violence prevention courses for the university.
Ananda was also previously on the board of the Merc Coop, where she had her first brush with what being a city leader was like. At the Merc, Ananda said she worked with other board members or Merc staff — including Marci Francisco, Dennis “Boog” Highberger, Mike Rundle and Eileen Horn — who have also held local leadership roles and that she really came to admire them and their commitment to the city. She said running for the commission became a goal of hers, but she wanted to wait for the right time when it came to her career and her two sons, who are now 10 and 12.
“I saw the experiences that they had,” Ananda said. “I had a pretty realistic idea of what that looked like and the commitment, which is why I waited until my life was in a position where I could handle that commitment.”
However, in her first two years on the commission, Ananda said one of the things that surprised her was the small amount of discussion the commission had before arriving at some decisions. Ananda said that though she knows there is a balance when it comes to discussion, she’d like to see more in the coming year.
“That is our opportunity to have discussions to really kind of tear into the why in addition to the what,” Ananda said. “And so I’m hopeful that we’ll bring a little bit more dialogue to the table amongst commissioners in the next year.”
A year of change
Those deeper discussions will be important as the commission makes key decisions in 2020.
Ananda said the biggest thing that she’s looking forward to in the coming year is the commission’s update to the strategic plan, which the commission uses to guide its budgeting process. The commission adopted its first overarching strategic plan in 2017, and the plan covered topics such as economic growth, fiscal planning and commitment to core services. The commission also set eight priority initiatives that it sought to accomplish within two years, such as consolidating its advisory boards, adopting a priority-based budgeting process and developing a downtown master plan.
Newly elected commissioners will be seated Tuesday — including newcomers Brad Finkeldei and Courtney Shipley as well as incumbent Stuart Boley — and the new commission will be updating the strategic plan early next year. Ananda said she felt like the plan the current commission made is a really good start, but that it could be better.
Specifically, Ananda said that she wants the goals in the strategic plan to be long-term, adaptive goals but with technical, short-term steps that the commission can take toward achieving them. She said she’s personally hopeful that the commission will consider looking at something like a “triple bottom line” for the community, considering people, economics and the environment when making decisions.
“Where we’re really looking at our residents, our equity issues, the quality of life and health for our residents, and the impact of the decisions that we make on our residents,” Ananda said.
Ananda said the city also has to deal with a lot of really big issues that have been kicked down the road. She said the city needs to address infrastructure maintenance with its street, water and sewage systems, and to make sure master plans that have been created are implemented.
“It involves kind of taking a step back from the really cool things that we want to do and addressing those core issues that have been neglected for a long time, sometimes decades,” Ananda said. “So things like infrastructure are going to be serious commitments.”
In addition to the new commissioners, a relatively new city manger and the update to the strategic plan, Ananda mentioned several upcoming initiatives that she is looking forward to. Those included the discussion about sanctuary city policies, the ongoing law enforcement minority contact study, and the implementation of body cameras for the Lawrence police department. She said she is excited for what she feels like will be “a year of change.”
“It’s going to be a dynamic year,” Ananda said. “We have lots of opportunities in front of us, and I am hopeful that in my leadership role I will carry us forward into that evolution of what it means to serve on the City Commission.”