Amid difficulties of the pandemic, incoming mayor wants the city ‘to look out for everyone in the community’
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Over the past 20 years, City Commissioner Brad Finkeldei has played big roles in plenty of local organizations: social service nonprofits, the chamber of commerce, the planning commission and more. And this week, if tradition holds, he’ll add a new role to that list: mayor of Lawrence.
Because Finkeldei was the top vote winner in the most recent City Commission election and is the current vice mayor, it is expected that commissioners will follow tradition and vote to appoint Finkeldei mayor at their meeting on Dec. 1. Finkeldei will assume the role from outgoing Mayor Jennifer Ananda.
Finkeldei, 47, recently told the Journal-World that many of his priorities as mayor will be similar to the things that motivated him to run for City Commission in the first place — addressing issues such as equity problems, homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing. But in his first year on the commission, another priority overshadowed all of those things: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s certainly different than what I thought it would be, with the issues and items I thought would be before us,” Finkeldei said of his first year on the commission.
Boards, commissions and more
A native of Wichita and an attorney by profession, Finkeldei has lived in Lawrence permanently since 2000. And over those two decades, he’s served in a laundry list of organizations and governing boards.
Finkeldei has spent 18 years on the board of Ballard Community Services and nine on the board of Lawrence Family Promise. He’s also served on a variety of boards dealing with planning and economic development. He was a member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission from 2006 to 2012, serving as the commission’s chair in 2008. He also served a year on the local Joint Economic Development Council and was a member of the Lawrence alcohol tax fund committee from 2005 to 2009. And he was on the local chamber of commerce’s board from 2011 to 2016, serving as the board’s president in 2015.
In many of these roles, Finkeldei has dealt with issues such as affordable housing and homelessness, and he said one of the things that motivated him to join the City Commission was a desire to do more to address those issues.
“I really wanted to try to bring some of those issues together and elevate them to the City Commission level,” Finkeldei said.
He also brings his professional background in law to the commission. The University of Kansas law school alumnus is now managing partner with Stevens & Brand law firm, where he focuses on litigation, banking and governmental law.
Finkeldei told the Journal-World he had been weighing whether to run for the City Commission for some time before he finally did in 2019 — he had wanted to wait until his daughters, who are now 17 and 19, were older.
However prepared he might have been when he decided to pursue that plan, however, the coronavirus pandemic has meant his first year as commissioner was not what he expected.
Only a few months into Finkeldei’s term, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Kansas, profoundly affecting the lives of residents and business at City Hall.
City Commission meetings have been conducted virtually since April, and several key processes have been delayed or altered, including the commission’s strategic planning process and the city’s budget process for 2021. The commission approved what has been described as a placeholder budget that it expects to revisit and amend in the coming year.
Finkeldei said that he thinks the commission’s job during the pandemic is to support the medical professionals and heed their guidance on how to best control the virus, and he thinks the community has done a great job of letting health experts guide the city’s response. With multiple vaccines finding success in trials, Finkeldei said his hope is that in 2021, a vaccine will be available and things can start heading back toward normal. He said that once the community gets to the other side of the pandemic, the commission will also have to work with Douglas County and other community leaders on an economic recovery, and he hopes the cooperation and community focus that has taken place during the pandemic will continue.
“We have had some times in the past where maybe that relationship was strained, but I think we need to continue and enhance what we have done together in the last year,” Finkeldei said. “We need to keep that up in 2021 as well, and I hope I can be part of that.”
In the coming year, the commission will also be catching up on processes that were delayed because of the pandemic and moving forward on new efforts, including the crafting of plans that will guide the commission’s future budget and economic development decisions. Finkeldei said those efforts, and making sure they address the needs of all people, have taken on added importance as the pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted existing issues.
“We need to look out for everyone in the community, and unfortunately because of the pandemic we’ve had even more homelessness, and more people without jobs, and more needing help,” Finkeldei said.
Goals for the coming year
One of the processes that was delayed by the pandemic is the creation of the city’s strategic plan, and Finkeldei said one of his goals for the coming year is to finalize and implement it. Once complete, the plan will serve as a guiding document for the commission’s budget decisions and the city’s day-to-day operations for the next two years.
The commission adopted a framework for the plan in October and will discuss more specific work plans and performance indicators related to the plan’s goals early next year. One element of the plan has been an emphasis on equity issues in the community, and Finkeldei said that’s an aspect that he finds especially important and is excited to move forward on. He said the plan’s mission of creating a community “where all enjoy life and feel at home” speaks to multiple equity-related issues.
“We want all people to move ahead,” Finkeldei said. “I think our community is one that cares, and obviously with my work in the agencies I’ve worked with, I think it’s important to have the city focused on all people no matter who they are.”
Finkeldei also said he saw those efforts as tying in with the findings and recommendations of the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Equity report from 2018. The report found that there are significant disparities in health, income and even life expectancy between different races and neighborhoods in Lawrence.
The city is also in the process of creating its first economic development strategic plan. Consultants and the city recently completed the first phase of that process, an approximately 100-page report that includes community survey results, an analysis of various elements of the city’s economy and a summary of the city’s economic weaknesses, strengths and opportunities. One of its findings was that the city needs to attract more kinds of businesses in order to remain affordable for people who don’t commute elsewhere. Ultimately, the plan will come up with more concrete goals and strategies to meet them.
Finkeldei said he saw addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage and the limited job options as another way of addressing everyone’s needs.
“(We need) an economic base that’s diverse enough that people can work here and live here and that their kids can grow up, get jobs here and stay here,” Finkeldei said. “I think we need to work on that aspect of helping everybody.”