Interview: Jennifer Nanek – City Clerk – Lake Wales, Florida

There’s a small city in Florida that some of the residents call “Paradise”.

Standing at the intersection of culture and growth is a city with a history as beautiful as its sunsets at dawn. Lake Wales celebrated the 100th year of their charter last year; an outstanding accomplishment as a municipality. Located in the heart of Florida, next to other known cities such as Lakeland and Kissimmee, Lake Wales hosts some of the most humid days in the nation. Because of this, the city’s taken beatings from hurricanes Jeanne, Charley, Frances, along with multiple shocks from others. However, their story of resiliency within the office and throughout the area has definitely drawn my attention.

What makes Lake Wales so remarkable?

Around 1911-12, those luscious green forests and undulating hills captivated a group of opportunistic businessmen, so they seized their moment to establish a name in the lumber industry. In 1917 the city was able to obtain its incorporation; and in 1921, it became a municipality. The visionary founders also noticed that citrus fruits would thrive in the humid and sandy environment, so the group took advantage of that as well. As the city started developing, it turns out that the businessmen and their company, Lake Wales Land Company, picked an incredibly strategic spot; sitting nearby shipping ports, while running two highway systems in all cardinal directions.

Not only has the city developed strategically, but they’ve also established a deep, subtle culture. Some call it paradise, while others call it home. Over time, residents of Lake Wales have constructed artistic structures, impressive museums, and one of their most attractive buildings, Bok Tower Gardens. Bok Tower Gardens is a national landmark and home to an enormous, beautiful assortment of plants and scenery. Along with being a garden, it’s a luxurious sanctuary for birds of all types. The people in Lake Wales love the rich culture and economic growth that’s continuing to evolve around the area.

I was actually able to chat with one of the residents, City Clerk, Jennifer Nanek. On top of being the clerk for the last four years, she’s a part of a couple of organizations including the Rotary Club, Literary Academy, and Democratic Party; though, the one that stood out to me the most was the Audubon Society – an organization that encourages the preservation of birds and their habitats. As an inquisitive person and because there’s an amazing bird sanctuary in her city, I had to ask what her favorite bird is:

“My Favorite bird is the sandhill crane because I see them everywhere in Florida and they’re easy to identify”

And I didn’t stop the questions there.

An interview with Jennifer Nanek:

As the current Clerk for the city, after having previous experience in other positions with them over the span of 23 years, I thought Jennifer would be a great person to have a conversation with. I wanted to know more about the changes that she’s seen over the years and what her goals might be for the future of the city. But first, I had to get to know her a little bit better. I started off by asking her if she has a morning routine:

“I get up at 5:00 am to feed the cats and do a little bit of kitchen clean up. After that, I (literally) run to the gym, work out, and then run home. I’ll shower, eat breakfast, read the newspaper and get dressed. I’ll get into the office between 9:00 am and 9:30 am. The first thing I do is check emails until around 10:30, which is the time I go get the mail. Once I do that, I’ll work until 12:00 and go for lunch.”

It was good to hear how disciplined she is; that’s someone you’d want as the backbone of your organization. Not only is she someone who handles her personal day-to-day life with structure, but she also has the experience and background to handle her professional career in Lake Wales the same way. Her experience with the municipality includes former Grants Administrator, Special Projects Manager, and Assistant to the City Manager. Her qualifications include her Master’s in Public Administration, and before that, she got her bachelor’s in History. Naturally, I asked her what her favorite event in history was:

“The sinking of the Titanic. Mainly because it happened on my birthday, but also because it kind of describes humanity in a nutshell: the technology to build a big, state-of-the-art, unsinkable ship that sinks; not enough lifeboats, and trapping the poor immigrants below.”

I thought that was a unique comparison and since the Titanic sank around the time the city was founded, it was even more profound. I’m talking with the city clerk whose birthday is on the same day that the Titanic sank in 1912, which happens to be around the same year that the city itself was founded…

Besides the point – after I asked her a couple of questions to get to know her as a person, I had to ask her how she balances work at the number of organizations that she’s a part of with life working for the city:

“I have a very full schedule all day. Time at each place is tight and my calendar helps. My phone is EVERYTHING almost. It helps me keep track of events and reminds me of different tasks. I keep documents like minutes for Rotary and AAUW Treasurer’s reports in Google drive. For work, I can access the agenda center from anywhere so I can work anywhere. I have everyone’s contact info on my phone – which is the main question I get. I do yoga 2x a week for relaxation and read a bit – I wish I had an assistant!”

I couldn’t help but agree with her on that last part! Generally, I also use my phone for the majority of tasks and organization techniques.

Because she’s able to organize and track things carefully, Jennifer takes care of her own business at the office while helping her colleagues do their jobs as well – As we know, clerks typically wear a lot of hats. She’s witnessed people come and go throughout her time at the office. She’s also seen people who want to stay and make an impactful change in Lake Wales. I asked her what are some of the changes that have stood out the most since she started, both internally and externally:

“The biggest change internally is technology. I started while still using a typewriter, a fuzzy black and white copier, and extremely slow internet. Memos were very prevalent. Now we have a copier that’s in color and has all sorts of features. I still type and scan everything. Externally, the City is continually growing development-wise. Some good, some not. I love more trails and restaurants, but the traffic…”

I think she speaks for everyone who lives in a small, up-and-coming area; the unusual traffic is definitely one thing that will take some getting used to.

The part that stood out to me was when she mentioned how far the technology has come, and that she used to work with a typewriter. Her list of responsibilities as a clerk is a mile long and having to do ANYTHING with a typewriter would be monotonous and time-consuming. I wanted to know – out of the entire list of responsibilities – which was her favorite, and which was her least favorite:

“I love the more ceremonial events. On the other hand, the responsibility that I dislike the most is minutes; they always need to be done and they’re never-ending. But like I said, the responsibilities I love the most are the ceremonial ones: swearing in a commissioner, ribbon cutting a runway extension, grand opening. That stuff I love.”

It makes sense why she’d prefer the ceremonial events rather than writing the minutes and agendas! The good news is that there are companies and automation tools out there to help with those routine tasks, which means that she can start focusing more on the duties or events that symbolize progress within the city. She’s seen so much growth already, which some people use as a reason to start getting complacent. Those people will ease up on creating a plan and goals. Jennifer isn’t those people:

“Goals for Clerks office – big picture: I would love to have the whole vault digitized and searchable. Instead of spending all day looking up the history of police cameras, for example, I can type ‘police cameras’ in the database, and documents that mention it will pop up.”

I’d say this highlights her ambition and that she’s still looking forward to the future of the municipality. It provides insight into her veteran vision, and even though her organization and community have seen an increase in efficiency, there’s still room for improvement. It’s good to have someone like Jennifer helping behind the scenes in Lake Wales.

Jennifer Nanek – City Clerk

Is Lake Wales a good place to live?

I guess that depends on who you ask. If you were to ask Jennifer, she would wholeheartedly say yes! With a rich culture and deep history, Lake Wales is a destination to instantly feel at home. While you live there, you can join residents like Jennifer in developing the area through various Boards & Commissions or volunteer opportunities. If you’re around Lake Wales for a vacation, check out the Bok Tower Gardens (you might see Jennifer there!), Camp Mack’s River Resort, or the museum. Side note: I figured people who live in Florida vacation to places outside of the state because of the sun and constant happiness, but she said her favorite spot to get away is Daytona Beach – who would have thought?

After talking with Jennifer, it’s no wonder why Lake Wales is a forever home to people like her, Pat Borders, Wade Davis, Amar’e Stoudemire, and other talented athletes, writers, engineers, etc. I look forward to seeing where the city is in a couple of years. I want to see them land on a ‘fastest-growing cities’ page to help bring in more businesses and residents. It would be incredible to talk with the staff down the line and see if there have been improvements on processes around the minutes or other tiresome tasks. I would love to hear about the development of roads in high trafficked areas – expanding the infrastructure with the economy.

Read more about their long-term plans in their Comprehensive Plan. To learn more about the history and opportunities within the City of Lake Wales check out the homepage here.

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