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A Conversation With … Rhonda Lewsader

City Attorney, City of Springfield

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What is your primary role as city attorney?
To provide legal advice to City Council, the city manager and the department heads of the city. All council bills have to be reviewed, all contracts have to be reviewed, not specifically by the city attorney, but by the city attorney staff. I’m currently working on code revisions, building codes. The (Building Development Services) department has been working on updating some of their building codes. Now they hope what they have is a final draft, so I’m going through it.

You’ve been in this position for three months, being named interim city attorney after Frank Romines left for a job in Colorado. What have you learned as you oversee this 20-employee, $2 million department?
Municipal prosecution relates to quality of life issues and so does much of what we do in the civil department, for example, the work we do to support BDS. Something that I hope to really focus on while I’m city attorney is how we improve quality of life for all of our citizens, how the law department can assist in that. I’m focusing on customer service. How do we best serve the departments we work for, how do we best serve the citizens, that’s my priority.

What’s your background, and how many years have you worked for the city?
My first law job was as a public defender in Jackson, Missouri, near Cape Girardeau. After I did that, I went back and got my master’s in business administration from (Missouri State University) and then I came to work for the city, first as a prosecutor and then I came over to the civil side. I’ve worked for the city for almost 20 years now.

You had a two-month stint as Republic’s city attorney in 2017. Why come back to Springfield so soon?
I thought it would be a nice opportunity to be a city attorney. When I got there, I just found I had spent so much time in Springfield I was used to the Springfield way of doing things. I had a lot of friends and people I really enjoyed working with here.

Why did you switch focus from prosecution to your roles in the city attorney’s office?
I had been a prosecutor for a long time, 13 years, and I felt I had experienced most of what I was going to. Coming to the civil side was a different kind of challenge, learning different areas of law. The thing I have liked most about moving over to the civil side is that I get to help people. As the prosecutor, you are prosecuting people and you do try to do some good for people who are the victims. But on the civil side, you are actually helping people build a road or find funding for a bridge.

What’s the progress on the exploration into a standalone airport authority?
We’re still completing that legal review. At the council lunch in January, council asked the Law Department to address whether statutory and charter changes would be needed if the recommendations made by the Airport Task Force are pursued. I anticipate it will be at least April before the findings are presented to council.

What are some of the challenges you foresee as the city grows?
This city, like every city in the state, continues to compete for a shrinking pool of funds. How do we remain competitive, attract jobs and do economic development like we need to keep our city going strong with this pool of shrinking dollars? We have to get more creative. As different departments have ideas, we have to figure out how they can accomplish what they want.

Rhonda Lewsader can be reached at rlewsader@springfieldmo.gov.

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