Mission Hills City Administrator becomes first woman to win prestigious award for Kansas public managers

Mission Hills' Courtney Christensen is the first woman in the 28 year history of the Buford Watson, Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Management to win the honr.
Mission Hills’ Courtney Christensen is the first woman in the 28 year history of the Buford M. Watson, Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Management to win the honor.

A longtime northeast Johnson County public administrator has become the first woman to win the Kansas Association of City/County Management’s top honor.

Courtney Christensen, who has served as Mission Hills city administrator since 2000, found out at the association’s annual awards luncheon last month that she was the 2016 recipient of the Buford M. Watson, Jr., Award for Excellence in Public Management, which has been given annually for 28 years and is named for a former city manager of Lawrence. Christensen said she was shocked and honored to hear the luncheon emcee call her name for the award.

“First they said ‘she,’ and I thought, well that’s really nice, because they hadn’t had a woman,” Christensen said. “So I was kind of looking around thinking, ‘Who could that be?’ And then they said, ‘social worker from Kansas State University,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God. That’s got to be me.'”

Indeed, before getting into public administration, Christensen spent six years as a social worker in a variety of roles, from counseling young children to making welfare visits. But she decided she wanted to seek a role in administration as she got further into her career, and had a professor suggest city management might be a good fit.

Christensen’s first job in public administration came as an intern for Prairie Village City Administrator Barbara Vernon while she was still finishing her master’s degree at UMKC. From there, she eventually went on to take a job in the Kansas City, Mo., administration department, where she moved up the ranks over 12 years and became an assistant city manager. In April 2000, she started her role with Mission Hills.

Christensen said her favorite part of the job is working on questions about how to do the most for residents with the tax dollars they pay to the city.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she said. “First you’ve got to figure out how much money you’ve got. Then you have to figure out how you can do what the people want you to do within that money. And you have to move the pieces around.”

She also said she takes pride in having helped launch the careers of a number of other city management professionals. Since she started the job, 17 public administration students have completed internships in her office, many of them going on to prominent careers in the Kansas City area. Chris Engel, who was recently named Merriam City Administrator, for example, was an intern in Christensen’s office.

“A lot of them are city managers now,” she said of her former interns. “It’s really kind of fun.”