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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Nov. 13, 200112:00 PM EST

The staff behind the Council

by: Monica Chamness

They are known by several titles —legislative assistant, executive council assistant, council aide — and for those who deal with them on a daily basis, they can be considered the backbone of the City Council. They are the person constituents talk to when calling a Council member with a problem. They attend meetings, brainstorm ideas and serve behind the scenes while their Council member receives the accolades — or the heat — from the public. And that’s how they like it. While some Council assistants have dreams of elected office, most enjoy their position away from the limelight. (So much so, that some didn’t want to be interviewed for this story or have their picture taken.) Here’s a look at some of those currently serving as City Council assistants:

Sandra Washington

Washington has been on King Holzendorf’s staff since July 1999, the same time many of the current executive council assistants (ECA’s) started work. She is no novice to the job, having served under former Council member Denise Lee and State Sen. Arnett Girardeau.

A registered nurse, Washington’s excursion into politics happened by chance.

“I had a call from a friend who said Lee was looking for an assistant,” said Washington. “I had just been downsized from St. Vincent’s and was thinking about what I wanted to do. I like new challenges. Lee is very passionate about everything she’s involved in, so I looked at it as a challenge.”

Making the transition from nursing management to Council assistant was a humbling experience, says Washington.

“I’m still serving people,” explained Washington. “I feel like I have made a difference in this office. Some take people through a lot of red tape; I’m here to make the process easier. The government is made for the people and is here to serve the people.”

She still spends about two hours each night doing contract work for the home health care industry. She is also considering returning to school to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.

“My first priority is to my City Council member,” said Washington. “I work for the health industry by contract. I’m not tied down to a set number of hours. It’s flexible and open based on what’s going on in the office.”

In her role, Washington must remain cordial, dealing with irate callers, distressed constituents and concerned citizens.

“There are times when you just can’t please people,” said Washington. “Sometimes people abuse this office and try to use it as a cure all. I use it to steer them in the right direction.”

When it comes to direction, Washington, who has two children, Byron, a senior at Stanton College Preparatory, and Seline, a pharmacy major at FAMU, says her future course does not include elective office.

Heather Patterson

Patterson is a graduate of the University of North Florida, holding a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration. She says her trek into the world of public service was almost a certainty.

“I wanted to go to law school and political science is the natural route,” explained Patterson, who got married last summer. “While in my political sciences classes I lost interest [in the law] and became more interested in campaigning. I volunteered for a couple of campaigns and ended up with Lynette [Self]. She’s great to have as a mentor because her work ethic is unprecedented.”

A Jacksonville native, Patterson, who played softball at UNF, revels in the inner workings of government.

“It’s rewarding to see an idea come to fruition,” said Patterson. “People always say things like, ‘There ought to be a law.’ We’re seeing ideas come into law. It’s really cool and something every American should experience first hand if possible.”

Matt Jackson

A former classmate of Reggie Fullwood, Jackson shares Fullwood’s love of civics. Both Terrence Webb, assistant to Gwen Chandler-Thompson, and Heather Patterson were classmates, too.

Jackson, who has a bachelor’s degree with a double major in history and political science from UNF, says he was always drawn to politics.

“Reggie called me and wanted me to be his treasurer,” said Jackson, who is originally from Ithaca, N.Y. “We had a good campaign and here I am.”

Jackson landed in Jacksonville after spending four years in the Navy, working with explosives.

Now that he’s here, Jackson has thoughts of one day sitting on the Council.

“Never say never,” Jackson said about running for public office. “I would like to be in his position. I wouldn’t mind the opportunity, but it’s all about timing.”

If Jackson were to run for office, he would employ a start-off-small approach to avoid losing touch with the people.

“You should start off at a local spot,” explains Jackson. “It’s a bonus to have this background. As you move up the chain, you spend more time away from those you represent and if you don’t have that background, you may forget what it means to be an elected official.”

In the meantime, Jackson says he’s content working behind the scenes, brainstorming ideas, tracking legislation and dealing with the public.

“Sometimes it’s a pain in the butt with the complaint calls,” said Jackson. “Anything that happens in the district, that City Council person gets blamed and we take the brunt of that. It’s mentally draining.”

Jackson says his proudest moment was working on the effort to change the name of the 20th Street Expressway to Martin Luther King Expressway.

In his spare time, Jackson is pursuing a law degree at Florida Coastal School of Law.

Sandra Henderson

Henderson joined the Council staff in 1999 as Jerry Holland’s assistant, leaving behind a background in building construction.

“I was his warranty manager when we worked at Seda Construction,” said Henderson. “He asked me if he won the election, if I would be interested in working at City Hall. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I like seeing a neighborhood improve itself or being able to fix potholes in front of someone’s house and knowing I had a hand in that.”

Reared in southern Georgia, Henderson has made a career out of administrative work. And she plans to keep it that way.

“When you’re an elected official, there’s a lot you have to go through,” she said. “When you’re behind the scenes, you have more good days than bad days.”

Henderson believes juggling the administrative side of her job with the legislative side presents the biggest challenge.

“It’s answering phones and opening, mail plus having to do research and fitting it all into an

8-, 9- or 10-hour day and not forgetting anything,” said Henderson.

Henderson and her husband Richard have two children, Kelly and Shaun, and a five-year-old grandson Andreu.

“He [Holland] understands my family is important to me,” said Henderson. “If I have a problem of any sort he always has time to listen to me. He’s not a micro-manager.”

Brenda Kelly

A 27-year veteran of Prudential prior to its downsizing, Kelly, assistant to Gwen Yates, was on the staff of former Council member Terry Fields. She was the first ECA hired in 1996 when new legislation granted Council members the right to appoint their staff and not be assigned civil services aides.

“Initially I wanted to be a public servant so the things I felt in my heart, I could do something about,” said Kelly. “It’s a great vehicle to do things to help the community. I’ve always been a crusader of sorts.”

Kelly immersed herself in learning about the political process in the hopes of improving the quality of life for her constituents.

“Sometimes no matter you do about a situation or how you feel about it, the end result may not be what the constituent desires,” she said. “We try to do the best we can to do what we can. I may be the only smile that person gets all day.”

For now, Kelly is content to remain behind the scenes.

“I’ve mulled over public office, but politics is so strange and complex,” she said. “If at the right time it was presented to me, I would at least think about it. But it’s probably a challenge considering the community I live in [Mandarin]. Right now I really like where I am.”

One thing she’s learned from working with Yates, is to always place the constituents first.

“She has a genuine concern for her constituents,” said Kelly. “I don’t work for her, but with her. It’s a pleasure to watch as she gives herself and positively impacts the community.”

Kelly is engaged to William Brown, a professional opera singer and professor of voice at UNF.

The other Council assistants: Bridgette Rodriguez assistant to Lake Ray; Lin White, assistant to Suzanne Jenkins; Christina Sasser, assistant to Matt Carlucci; Stan Johnson, assistant to Mary Ann Southwell; Katrina Fisher, assistant to Pat Lockett-Felder; Rhonda Goodwin, assistant to Warren Alvarez; Martha Foote, assistant to Doyle Carter; Shirley Nulf, assistant to Alberta Hipps; Carla Salley, assistant to Jim Overton; Audrey Hall, assistant to Faye Rustin; Cynthia Warner, assistant to Elaine Brown; Celeste Hicks, assistant to Lad Daniels; Annette Hastings, assistant to Ginger Soud, and Terrence Webb, assistant to Dr. Gwen Chandler-Thompson.

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