Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, October 1, 2012

Gonda forges relationships for city of Milwaukee

Jennifer Gonda

Award recognizes innovation

Jennifer Gonda was one of two alumni who won the Lloyd D. Gladfelter Award for Government Innovation in 2004.

As a fiscal planning specialist for Milwaukee, Gonda proposed that state government supplement opportunities to register to vote by allowing and even encouraging citizens to register whenever they have face-to-face contact with state agency staff. Gonda's approach provided convenient, multiple opportunities to register to vote and for state and local governments to transfer information to the statewide voter registration database.

Another 2004 Gladfelter recipient was 1988 alum Joseph Balles, a Madison police officer who created a movement within Dane County law enforcement to develop a database to share information on individuals who had encounters with various area police forces.

Jennifer Gonda builds connections between the city of Milwaukee and the state and federal governments.

As the city's new director of intergovernmental relations, the 2001 La Follette School alum leads the office responsible for state, local and federal relationships. "I help ensure that the city can maximize the resources obtained from those jurisdictions," Gonda says. "I get the message out about challenges and about opportunities for those who might want to invest in projects, to find the best ways to connect all levels of government."

Gonda joined the mayor's cabinet in July 2012 after unanimous confirmation by the Common Council. One of her first projects was figuring out responses to a railroad's decision to end intermodal container service to the Port of Milwaukee after more than 10 years. "Goods that came into the port by steamship were loaded directly onto railcars to be carried to the East or West Coast to be shipped to Asia or Europe," Gonda says. "The city and the state have a huge interest in keeping goods moving, so we have been looking for another long-distance hauler or a short-haul operator to fill the gap."

Gonda reached out to the Wisconsin congressional delegation to see if federal law could be applied to keep the railroad in Milwaukee. She then turned to the state and is now collaborating with the railroad commissioner, the state Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to find solutions.

Gonda joined the city's intergovernmental relations office in 2004 after more than four years in the budget office, where she found that she liked the process of financial planning and of looking ahead, which is why the legislative relations office is a good fit. She moved to senior legislative coordinator, then to fiscal manager and then to her latest position as director.

Gonda started her career as a fiscal planning specialist in the city's the budget office, where she helped coordinate La Follette School public affairs workshop projects. She helped students as they explored the city's public-health nurse home-visitation program and infant mortality, community development block grants for housing and a proposal to install cameras at intersections to cite drivers who run red lights. "That red-light traffic camera report really provided us the foundation for several proposals that were introduced to the Legislature," Gonda says.

While completing her Master of Public Affairs degree, Gonda focused her interests on transportation, economic development and public finance within the context of city management. "Those were the three areas that I was interested in," she says. "Since then I've become a complete generalist. Think about the type of work that a city does: I have learned about public libraries, fire departments and public works."

The ability to shape her degree program is what drew Gonda to the La Follette School after she graduated in 1998 from Winona State University in Minnesota. "The thing I liked best about the La Follette program was the flexibility to pursue different policy areas and to take courses in other departments," Gonda says. "I didn't want to go into a program that was strictly focused on city management; I wanted the flexibility to pursue different career paths in the future and to tailor my program. Other graduate programs I looked at were more rigid."

"At La Follette, I had classmates who wanted to go into education, transportation, health, the federal government, a few into local government like myself," Gonda adds. "I really liked the fact that we weren't steered into one area or another, that we were able to create our own destiny."

Gonda held a project assistantship at the campus transportation center, where she worked with 2000 La Follette alum Jason Bittner, who is now director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. She also held a project assistantship with professor Karen Holden, helping to translate German documents about widows social security benefits. Gonda lived in Germany as a child, when her father was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force. In 2008 she won the John J. McCloy Fellowship in Urban Affairs, which took her to Germany for three weeks to study local government management.

At La Follette, Gonda learned about the dichotomy between public policy and politics. "In my role with Milwaukee, I think through the issues based on which outcome is the best for citizens and the city," Gonda says. "Then I think about what is politically palatable. Being grounded in good public policy, that is the foundation for what we do. La Follette prepared me for this role."

One enlightening experience through La Follette was her analysis of the city of Madison's bus system and how it implemented the transfer point system, Gonda says. "I found that it was beneficial to understand the local politics behind an improvement and how people continue to be dissatisfied after a policy implementation."

Gonda likes it when people are a little uneasy about a policy proposal. "You know you have a good piece of legislation if everyone is uncomfortable," she says. "The proposal is a good compromise because that means everyone had to give a little bit. I look back at that project and everyone we talked to was uncomfortable."