Leading cities through crisis

Alumni mayors apply legal training to public service

Jennifer Ananda, L’10, started her one-year term as mayor of Lawrence in December 2019. Ananda said her legal education and social work training have helped her work through the city’s coronavirus response. Photo by Margaret Hair.

From the early days of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Jennifer Ananda knew everyone in Lawrence, Kansas would need to work together.

The coordinated response started with a unified command of city, county, health department, education and other officials, Ananda said. It soon spread to residents coming together to ensure one another’s safety, she said.

“We had residents sewing masks, businesses making free lunches, non-profits offering rental assistance, the city offering services for those who need access to facilities and showers,” Ananda said. “These are no small feats, and our community showed up to do, and continue doing, what needs to be done.”

Ananda, L’10, is one of several KU Law alumni whose title of mayor has taken on new meaning in the past several months. Among the other KU lawyers serving as heads of local governments Sandra Kent, L’90, mayor pro tem of Richland, Washington; Eric Mikkelson, L’94, mayor of Prairie Village; David Waters, L’02, mayor of Westwood, Kansas; and Mike Kelly, L’11, mayor of Roeland Park, Kansas.

As the situation surrounding COVID-19 developed through the spring, Ananda said she found herself more frequently called on to act as a figurehead for the community. While the city government looked to health care professionals to drive research-based decision making, “people needed to hear from the mayor,” Ananda said.

“I quickly discovered that my job encompassed sharing information widely so that our community was informed,” she said.

Ananda was elected to the Lawrence City Commission in 2017 and started her one-year term as mayor in December 2019. Originally from Girard, Kansas, Ananda completed her undergraduate degree at KU and earned a joint J.D.-M.S.W. degree. In addition to her role as mayor, Ananda is the Title IX Coordinator for Emporia State University.

After years of being involved in activism and politics, Ananda said she knew she wanted to run for City Commission for several years before running. She took motivation from watching local leaders in action, as well as from a family history of public service.

“My father was a city employee of my hometown for most of my life. His work ethic and commitment to keeping our community safe as a fire chief sparked in me a sense of responsibility to give back to my community in a way that reflects my strengths,” Ananda said.

She said her legal training combined with her social work education have helped her navigate the situation by assessing information, identifying goals, planning accordingly, and keeping communication as an essential part of the process.

“To be able to balance information and the health-based needs of the community and offer grace and compassion has allowed me to effectively serve our community during a pandemic and a time of racial reckoning for our entire country,” she said.

Eric Mikkelson, L’94, front center, serves as mayor of Prairie Village, Kansas. He is pictured with city staff at Prairie Village‘s city hall building. Photo courtesy of Eric Mikkelson.
Pulling together to weather the storm

In Prairie Village, the city’s initial response involved declaring a local emergency and invoking local powers to enforce health orders, Mikkelson said. Eric Mikkelson has served on the Prairie Village city council since 2014 and was elected mayor in 2018.

“During those first weeks, we had to make multiple daily judgment calls to re-invent local government based on changing conditions, incomplete information, and mixed guidance from other sources,” Mikkelson said. As the weeks stretched on, some non-essential city services were suspended, portions of parks were closed, and essential city staffing went into rotations. Each decision came with necessary coordination with neighboring governments, as well as messaging to residents, Mikkelson said.

“We always cooperate with area agencies, but this pandemic required coordination on a level not seen before for health issues. We forged new relationships across the Kansas City metropolitan area to combat this virus together,” he said.

Originally from Lawrence, Mikkelson earned his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and returned to his home state for law school. He got involved in local government after advocating for more parkland, pedestrian and bicycle routes in Prairie Village, he said. He also served as a municipal judge for the City of Leavenworth from 1996-1997.

Mikkelson said his law background – along with an undergraduate degree in human biology – made it possible to process decisions that were “fraught with legal, health and other peril.” Legal training was helpful in “determining the facts, analyzing the relevant ones, consulting experts, researching legal precedent where it existed, and distilling all of that to create viable new laws and policy to meet the unique challenges,” he said.

“It helped us navigate to get to the best solution more quickly,” Mikkelson said.

Mikkelson is a partner in the corporate finance division of Stinson LLP’s Kansas City office. He also is a lecturer at KU Law. As the demands of his government work have increased, Mikkelson said he has become “a more efficient supervising team leader at the law firm.” When the Mergers & Acquisitions course he teaches at KU Law went online last spring, he adapted the course to teach live via Zoom.

In his law practice, teaching and government service, Mikkelson has found having a strong team has been essential to navigating crisis. That has held true in Prairie Village, where the staff, Council and community are pulling together to weather the storm, Mikkelson said.

“We drew on deep civic wells of resilience, compassion and community amongst our residents to confidently reaffirm who we are,” he said. “Those re-affirmed character traits will continue to guide us through these challenges to a brighter future together.”

— By Margaret Hair

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of the KU Law magazine.