RIO COMMUNITIES — It’s been only a little more than a week that Leisa Haynes took the reins as the new city manager in Rio Communities, but she’s already looking toward the future.
Haynes, who has experience working for small cities in Oklahoma, says she’s excited to help bring new ideas to the newest city in Valencia County.
“There is nothing but potential here,” Haynes said of Rio Communities. “This is a new city and opportunities abound. We sit between the Rio Grande and the Manzano Mountains. It’s so beautiful.”
Rio Communities Mayor Mark Gwinn said Haynes stood out from the other candidates in a lot of ways, particularly her enthusiasm and drive.
“She sold herself to us as to what she could accomplish as a city manager,” Gwinn said. “She stood out a little higher than the rest. When we tallied all the interview scores, it was close with another candidate, but it was her dynamic that set her apart.”
Haynes comes to Rio Communities with a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Central Oklahoma, and a bachelor of science degree in communications from East Central University.
She was the city manager of Mangum, Okla., from July to September 2018; and assistant city manager for the city of Tuttle, Okla., from August 2015 to June 2016. She left that position to finish her degree.
Not only has Haynes had experience in city administrations, she was also the special events and recreation specialist for the Midwest City, Okla., from September 2014 to February 2015.
But it was during her 13 years with the Oklahoma MainStreet Program that she became intrigued with local government and how it works. As a certified national downtown development specialist, Haynes said she was able to work with cities to cultivate their economic development.
After working in broadcast journalism while pursuing her undergraduate degree, Haynes decided to change direction and got a job with the Oklahoma MainStreet Program.
She was the MainStreet manager for Shawnee, Okla., for seven years before being hired on at the state level.
“I was a trainer and on the road for three days a week and five to 10 weeks nationally a year,” she said. “In that job, I worked with mayors and city managers and city leaders. I got to know these city managers, and I thought it would be cool to put my skills together to help one town, and I thought I could be a city manager.”
For the next 15 years, Haynes worked part-time while raising her three children. Then, after owning and running a convenience store for two years, she sold the business and began graduate school.
While in school, she was contracted with the city of Shawnee and went to every city council meeting, and was very involved. She was then hired by Midwest City, which is the seventh largest city in Oklahoma, as a special events and recreation assistant.
A year later, the city of Tuttle called and asked if she’d be their assistant city manager. While there, part of her duties were to assist the finance director with the city budget, and served as a code enforcement officer.
She left that position during the last semester of graduate school because she needed to study for her comprehensive exam and write her capstone paper to graduate.
When she graduated with a master’s degree in public administration, she realized there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for her in Oklahoma.
“There are 500 city managers and only 10 were women,” she said. “I found it very hard to get a job.
“I got hired in the city of Mangum, and was doing great,” she said. “I wasn’t there for very long because a lie got started and went viral. The city council got excited and had me explain it. Even though they knew it was a lie, they asked me to resign. I think they acted irrationally.”
Having lived in Oklahoma all her life, Haynes said she wanted something different, and Rio Communities granted that wish. Her first impression of the city was the “absolutely outstanding views.”
“I wanted something different — I wanted an adventure,” she said.
As for her new adventure in New Mexico, Haynes said she is grateful for the opportunity and is ready to make a difference.
“I want to stay here — I want to be here,” she said. “I want to experience the culture, the history, the food, the colors — everything. I’m new and I’m open to everything. It’s such a welcoming community.”
Haynes was particularly impressed with the governing body, having attended her first council workshop last week.
“It’s a new city and it’s exciting. There’s a lot to putting a new city together,” she said. “Each one of these councilors have taken personal responsibility for some part of that building — the city councilors are a group of builders. It’s so wonderful to have a partnership like that. They’re passionate. The mayor is very well versed and up on everything.
“I feel so lucky. I feel like I’m supposed to be here. I think God put me here,” she added. “They have been so nice to me. I feel a lot of love here.”
Some of her first priorities is to recruit businesses to Rio Communities, work on fixing the roads and getting streetlights for the city.
“We also have $25,000 for a study to build a park. I’m writing that proposal right now,” she said. “I would like to develop the river front, just to complement the areas we can. I’d like to clear away the brush and plant low-maintenance plants and develop a walking trail. Just to let people enjoy it.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.