Just a few days into her first term, Lawrence Mayor Deb Whitfield was busy getting her offices set up at Government Center, appointing people to key positions in the administration and scheduling visits with various departments within the city’s government.
“I like to seek first to understand,” she said. “The first few days, that’s what I’m doing — I’m learning. I’ve met with all the department heads — yesterday was my first staff meeting and meeting with all of them. One of the things that I’ve asked each department head is (that) I would like to visit their area and meet their employees so that they know who I am, and I know who they are.”
Whitfield said she hopes everyone will introduce themselves when they see an unfamiliar face, “because we’re all going to have to work together. We can’t do this alone, and we’re going to need each other.”
Some new appointments aren’t necessarily new faces, though. Following the retirement of Lawrence Fire Department Chief Dino Batalis, Whitfield swore in Deputy Chief Bob Wallace to fill the role; and following the retirement of Utilities Superintendent Scott Salsbery, the new interim superintendent — Paul Warner — previously served as the utilities’ operations director.
“I believe in upward mobility,” Whitfield said. “I believe that if we have the staff here, why not give them the opportunity to move up? And that’s why you’ll see some of them in an interim position — I want to give them the opportunity to show us that they can do the job. And I think that’s fair.”
Whitfield said she also has asked each of the departments to provide 2024 goals and projects.
“We’re going to prioritize which ones we can do,” she said. “I know (from) sitting on the council pretty much what we do with the budget, but now I have an opportunity to really hear from the parks department (for example). What do they want to do with their budget? What are their goals?”
And then, she said, they can set each department’s goals together as a team.
Whitfield has some goals of her own, too. She said connectivity and communication throughout the city is important to her, and to help achieve that, her administration has started work on a new community advisory board.
“I think we can get that done in the first 100 days, so we’re hearing from our community. That’s that inclusivity that I talked about, and how we can start planning different things,” she said.
Getting that board together has been delegated to new Deputy Chief of Staff LeAndre Level. He said the vision is to gather a diverse group.
“Whether it’s faith leaders, community leaders, youth community partners, like YMCA. Arts for Lawrence and other community partners — nonprofits — … I imagine like an advisory council to make sure that we are understanding what the community needs, and then kind of relay that back to the mayor,” he said. “Because that not only affects how the mayor sees the community, but also what ideas have come from them. We have a lot of smart people here, but I think some of our best ideas come from the community directly.”
New Chief of Staff Zachary Brown noted that the mayor’s office also is filling seats on the city’s various boards and commissions, which Whitfield stressed will be bipartisan.
“I think it’s important so that we show the city that I’m a mayor for the whole entire city,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, your political connection. We just need people with a lot of skill sets and talents and perspectives to help us. Just like I said in my speech at the swearing-in ceremony, I can’t do this alone. I need our folks in our city to step up and let’s make Lawrence a great place to live, work and play.”
She said the transition into the mayor’s office has been exciting, and she’s still getting used to people calling her “mayor.” Brown noted that retaining various staff members makes the transition more stable for the whole community.
“We’re really working on building on — and the mayor said this throughout the campaign — building on the momentum the city already has. We recognize that we’re coming into something that — they were on a good path there. And we want to build upon that.”
Whitfield agreed and said it’s a team effort.
“And there’s no ‘I’ in team,” she said. “It’s not just the mayor, it’s her staff or administration. It’s her team that will come up and help us make things and build upon the momentum. I spoke about that quite a bit. And I’m just excited to see what we’re going to do.”
Lawrence department heads
Mayor Deb Whitfield’s office recently announced some appointments, with more pending. Currently, the city’s department heads are:
- Zachary Brown – Chief of Staff*
- LeAndre Level – Deputy Chief of Staff*
- Nikia Simmons – Executive Assistant to the Mayor*
- Amber Finley – City Attorney*
- Daniel Beyer – Communications Director
- Jim Heneghan – Streets Director
- Paul Wanner – Interim Utilities Superintendent*
- Humphrey Nagila – Interim Controller*
- Robert (Bob) Wallace – Fire Chief*
- Curtis Bigsbee – Police Chief
- Keith Johnson – Economic Development Director*
- Eric Martin – Parks Director
To be announced are the Department of Public Works director and a permanent utilities superintendent.