Lincoln's newest City Council member won't take her place on the dais at City Hall with a host of priorities in hand. 

Sändra Washington said she'll defer to her junior position on the seven-member body, but her passion for parks and planning drawn from a career in the National Park Service and work on the City-County Planning Commission will naturally follow her to council meetings.

"I’m the last to sit," Washington said Sunday in an interview. "I really will step back and see what I’m asked to do."

Washington was the consensus choice of the other six City Council members from a field of 24 candidates to fill the at-large seat vacated when Leirion Gaylor Baird became mayor last month.

As expected, the council Monday unanimously approved Washington's appointment at a meeting less than two weeks after the application deadline.

Washington has lived in Lincoln since 1990 and before retiring in 2014, she traveled to various parts of the Midwest to work on projects for the Park Service. 

Shortly after her arrival, Washington learned from reading the newspaper that she could get involved in shaping local government by showing up to community meetings. 

She loved Lincoln's approachability. 

"So when I had the time, I just kept stepping up," she said.

Washington grew up in a small town outside Columbus, Ohio. 

The seeds of her interest in the Park Service were planted on family trips her outdoors-loving father planned by having his children close their eyes and pick a spot on the map, she said.

"And that’s where we would go." 

The early road trips led to a five-day canoeing trip and, for Washington, to a class trip the summer after her ninth grade year when she visited a slew of national parks. 

Journals from that trip reminded Washington of the group's brief stop at Homestead National Monument in Beatrice before venturing to Rocky Mountain National Park, then to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, among other national parks, she said. 

Each day bested the previous day. 

After high school, she stayed close to home and studied conservation and natural resources at Ohio State University before taking a job as a field ecologist at Ohio's natural resources department in 1985.

She moved to Lincoln for love in 1990 and sought any jobs in the parks field she could find. 

She called the local National Park Service office and asked to visit with staff about its work. 

One day she went in to the office, resume in hand, and met five or six people.

They didn't have any openings then, but when the first job became available, she applied and started working for the Midwest Office as a community planner. 

"It's like a little Cinderella story," she said. 

She worked first as a community planner with the park service on outdoor recreation projects, and her job took her to Indianapolis to assess the potential for greenways along creeks in the area and to East Des Moines, Iowa, where she helped work on a trail project for a newly developed neighborhood. 

In 1992, she was appointed superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site in Topeka, Kansas, and helped shape the early years of the newly designated National Park Service asset. 

That included acquiring a segregated school for black children in Topeka that Linda Brown had attended before the Supreme Court's landmark ruling mandated racially integrated education. 

"It was a really monumental opportunity for me to get a better feeling about, get a greater understanding of the importance of the current historical events," Washington said.

She continued on with the federal agency and worked in different roles in the Midwest Region. The job often required her to travel two or three weeks a month, she said. She retired in 2014.

She knew she wanted to get involved in the city and in November 2016, then-Mayor Chris Beutler appointed Washington to fill a seat on the Planning Commission because another member had just moved out of state.

On the Planning Commission, she's loved getting into the "nitty gritty" of the individual cases before her, she said.

Public policy appeals to her, she said, especially how it affects decisions and the tangible outcomes. 

She got a feel for annexation and zoning regulations, knowledge she believes will suit her well on the City Council. 

Occasionally, the commission saw contentious public hearings such as one in Kansas,  when people drove more than two hours to voice opposition to the creation of a new national parks area.

Washington believes her job then was to listen and take detailed notes to understand the concerns and examine possible policy solutions. 

In her new job, she said she'll consult policy and precedent early in her decision-making process and then seek input to inform her research.

For example, she'll have an eye to how various requests before the council fit into the city's long-range plan. 

Gaylor Baird, who watched Washington's swearing-in, praised her successor.

"She will serve our city well in her new role on the council," Gaylor Baird said in a news release. "She has the experience, knowledge, and dedication to make thoughtful decisions that will improve life in Lincoln."

Washington and her wife, Deb Cirksena, have a 13-year-old daughter, Bella. 

In her free time, she said she enjoys attending her daughter's softball games, watching the Husker women's basketball team, walking through her central Lincoln neighborhood and finding restful spots in Pioneers Parks to unwind.

Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.


Load comments