- Associated Press - Friday, January 13, 2017

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - After having lived in Phoenix, Kansas City and San Francisco, what brought incoming Mayor Leslie Soden to Lawrence was simple.

“I was just kind of ready to settle down, and I wanted to have my own little place, and a yard and garden and a dog,” said Soden, who grew up in Topeka. “And I liked the people in Lawrence; I liked coming to Lawrence.”

So Soden looked for a job in what was then her field of choice, information technology, and moved to Lawrence in 1999, according to the Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/2j90jtR ). As the years passed, her involvement in goings-on at the city grew, too.

After getting an East Lawrence Neighborhood Association newsletter in the mailbox of her first home, on Connecticut Street, Soden began attending meetings, and eventually became president.

“I just really enjoyed it,” Soden said of her nine years working with the ELNA. “I liked learning about how we have zoning and neighborhood policies - a lot of things that I’d never stopped to think about before.”

She later was the at-large member on the city’s Joint Economic Development Council, then a member of the City Commission, and on Monday, if city commissioners stick with the tradition of promoting the vice-mayor to mayor - which they are widely expected to do - Soden will become Lawrence’s newest mayor.

In November, Soden took up a part-time job where her clients don’t typically know who she is: driving for the online ride-hailing service Uber. Soden said many of the people she picks up are younger, typically college students.

For those who make conversation, Soden says those interactions have been helpful to her as a commissioner.

“It’s really interesting the things that people will talk about not knowing who I am,” Soden said. “So, I might ask questions: what do you think about this, what do you think about that?”

For instance, Soden said she recently picked someone up near a stoplight that was newly installed by the city.

“So I got to ask them, ‘What do you think about this stoplight?’ without that person having to feel like they had to diplomatically answer,” Soden said. “It just gives me like an honest, off-the-hip answer, and I really enjoyed that quite a bit.”

Soden’s other occupation also shows her additional sides of the city. Soden left the IT industry in 2006, and started her pet-watching business, Pet Minders. Soden said that most of her clients live on the west side of town, and it helped her see a different element of the city.

Soden said that given the location of her house, she was “living the typical downtown Lawrence mindset” and stuck mainly to that area of town. But as part of her business, she has interactions with a wide scope of people.

“It’s just really good to see that there’s 100 ways that you can live your life, and we have all of those ways here in Lawrence,” Soden said. “It’s good experience to get that and certainly makes me a more empathic and tolerant person than I was before I started.”

Soden, 45, began her term as commissioner in 2015, and though she said the job felt like a natural fit, it hasn’t been without its adjustments.

Specifically, Soden said that getting comfortable with being a public figure took time. She said that ranged from worrying that she needed to dress nicely or wear makeup everywhere to managing impromptu conversations on city issues when people came up to her in public.

“I’m a pretty casual, relaxed person, and so I guess I was perhaps too anxious of people’s perception of me just when I was out being myself,” Soden said.

But that got better, as did the impromptu conversations. To Soden, that matters because she said she does want to know what people think, even if she’s on a tight schedule.

“I feel more comfortable now being out in public if someone recognizes me and knowing how to handle it when they want to talk to me about something and I’ve got to run to an appointment or whatever,” Soden said.

With her commission and work experiences under her belt, Soden has some specific things she wants to accomplish in her one-year term as mayor.

As mayor, Soden said she would like the city to make more progress on affordable housing, high-speed internet, and planning and collaboration.

The shortage of affordable housing in the area has been classified as severe, and it has been a primary goal of the city for the past year and a half. But Soden said she has been a little frustrated with how long it has taken the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board to make a policy recommendation.

“Just saying affordable housing is a goal has not been helpful for us to really get moving on that topic and actually start creating affordable housing, whether that’s new construction or not,” Soden said.

Once the board makes a policy recommendation, it will go to the commission for review and input, and Soden said she is looking for something comprehensive

“When you have a topic like affordable housing that the city already has issues with, I don’t think we should be afraid to try new tactics or new policies,” Soden said. “If you’re already failing, why not try something new?”

Soden said she thinks the approach should include preserving existing affordable housing, new construction, and converting houses split into apartments back to single-family homes, if possible. As far as new construction, Soden said partnerships could be formed to use city- and county-owned property to create housing that would serve mixed incomes.

Other affordable housing related efforts could integrate or expand existing programs such as Section 8 rental vouchers, Soden said. She said costs that residents must pay, such as utility bills and public transit, also should be part of the conversation.

In addition, Soden said she would like to make more of an effort to get high-speed internet to Lawrence. She said that could mean that the city has its own fiber network or encourages private companies to upgrade their services.

“Technology is something that we really need to keep up with, because we don’t want to get left behind because then people aren’t going to want to live in Lawrence,” Soden said.

In all aspects, better planning is also a must.

Soden said she is excited that her term as mayor will begin at the same time that the commission starts its first strategic planning process. Soden said the plan will help the commission meet its goals, and address what she sees as a need for more collaboration between city departments.

“I’m hoping that with our strategic planning we can start to come up with more concrete timelines and metrics that we can measure progress by,” Soden said. “I think it’d be really good if we started getting quarterly reports from departments outlining how they’re helping to achieve these city goals that we have.”

“And so just kind of tying everyone’s work together, I think, will be really great,” Soden added.

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Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com

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