By Cambria Roth, Nevada Media Alliance
She has shoulder-length grey hair and large brown eyes. She is wearing a professional skirt suit with a red scarf, but she doesn’t look very comfortable wearing a suit — maybe hiking pants and a t-shirt, but not a suit.
Today, she takes a seat behind her name, ‘Jenny Brekhus’ in the Sparks City Council chambers at a Western Regional Water Commission meeting. Her home is on the Reno City Council, but she has been appointed to this committee as a representative of the city.
She sits attentive, ready to pounce on any question she encounters. Sometimes as she is listening, she rests the side of her head in her hand with an intensely focused look that no one else displays. Today’s topics include nitrate concentrations in high density septic areas and other issues, which she has been dealing with for years. After the meeting, she continues to speak with presenters about scientific studies, and even gives her opinion about how policy needs to play a role.
Brekhus isn’t your typical city councilwoman. Her lively attitude warrants comments from people at the meeting like, “That is a great person to do a profile on, she has such a dynamic personality and voice,” or “well, that is the person to talk about, Jenny always has good questions.”
It isn’t just her vibrant personality, Brekhus is grounded and laid-back person. She usually rides her bike to work, but today with a meeting in Sparks, she chose to drive her 1998 Toyota 4Runner that is still running 170 thousand miles strong — She even pulled off some of its trim the other day.
For lunch, she stops at a local drive-thru southern BBQ joint in Sparks that specializes in fried gizzards, frog legsm, and okra, but settles on a soft-shelled crab sandwich.
“My husband is a city planner in Sparks, and he always finds these cool hidden food joints,” she said.
From classics to city planning
Brekhus and her husband, Armando Ornelas, moved to Reno from New Mexico in 1998. There, she had worked as an intern for the city of Albuquerque before being offered a job in the city planning department.
She grew up in the Bay Area, and was first introduced to city politics by her father who was on the city council in a small town of 2,500 residents. While she was always interested in public policy, she decided to pursue a liberal arts degree in classics at the University of California, Berkeley.
“From there, the path for most students is in academia or archaeology, but I wanted something more relevant, so I thought I’d go to law school,” Brekhus said. “But then I took some public administration and planning classes that I enjoyed.”
She was admitted to law school, but decided, instead, to obtain dual graduate degrees in Public Administration and Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico. It was there that she became most interested in the physical nature of cities and how it can foster great societies and human interaction.
“There is greatness to really good urban, suburban and rural landscapes at all scales,” Brekhus said. “I’ll see the lay of the land somewhere and start thinking about how it could have been different — for example, that crack ceiled street here, that bus stop there, what is the routing of that bus stop? Or this weekly motel right next to this restaurant, what is the situation of that?”
Her mind flittingly moves from one thought and task to the next. Not only is she a city councilwoman, but she is also a working mother, which has played a role in dealing with Reno City Council issues. Her 12-year-old daughter, Eliana, has developed a love for ice-skating.
“It is sad because we don’t have a rink here,” Brekhus said. “We don’t even have an Olympic size pool for families to go to, and it just takes one swim mom out of the bay area to say well I’m not moving there because we swim. Those little things add up and make our lives pleasant.”
She saidthis is where quality of life comes into play because businesses want to be where citizens have an excellent standard of living, and Reno needs to be positioned as a desirable place. Reno has the potential with the climate and location, but Brekhus wants to see it become a place where young people want to be, and she believes it is the city government’s responsibility.
“I want this city to be a place where there is a cultural buzz,” Brekhus said.
Speaking of culture
Before moving to New Mexico, Brekhus made the decision to do a classical tour throughout Europe by herself. She landed in Athens before traveling alone for nearly four months . Brekhus said crossing the militarized border into Turkey was an eye-opening experience, and she was fearless in a warring Muslim country.
Her courage is part of what makes her stand out as an individual on this city council — she isn’t afraid to make a decision, and knows not everyone is going to like her all of the time.
During the legislative session, she was one of only two council members to reject the idea of citywide voting, rather than voting by a specific ward. She refused to oppose Senate Bill 457 with the rest of the city council because through voting by wards, campaign elections would be less expensive for candidates.
“When I raise a perspective, it is always about the issues, and that bill made it through the entire Nevada Legislature before it was vetoed by the governor,” Brekhus said.
One topic she isn’t afraid to be vocal about is the city’s fiscal condition.
“The city is really in debt, and a lot of our debt was based on exotic financial instruments that we got into, and a lot of cities got into these, but not as deep as us,” Brekhus said. “The complexity of those will test anyone.”
This has led to her being outspoken and raising issues that she believes aren’t getting enough voice or attention. One of her goals is to rebuild trust in the city government by looking at things comprehensively. She admits she is sometimes kind of a mouth.
“Everyone comes to the city council with their own ideas, but I’m trying to ask questions, understand and frame discussions because we need to look long term and understand consequences,” Brekhus said. “Others who have been on city council are like, ‘Why is she bringing this up again?’ But I’m just trying to understand—what was our goal when we floated that bond?’”
Ornelas said this is part of Brekhus’s success, because she is a people person who thrives in roles where she can interact and discuss issues.
“Jenny isn’t afraid to mix it up,” Ornelas said. “She likes to debate and to air differences of opinion and to try to understand issues.”
All eyes on her
For Brekhus, one of the most difficult parts of being an elected official has simply been appearance. Whether it is weighing the pros and cons of what to wear when she rides her bike to work, taking a decent headshot, or even having a stylish haircut.
“Some of those body images that you take from being a teenager to being an adult have stuck with me,” Brekhus said. “Some people fall naturally into having the attention on them, but the transformation from a bureaucratic agency to having all eyes on me as a politician has been a challenge.”
She can’t stomach watching tapes or listening to interviews that she has done. It isn’t hard for her to make a decision or voice her opinion, but having the attention solely on her can be trying.
Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung, a fellow member on several committees, pointed out that one of Brekhus’s strengths is in her analysis and due diligence of policy decisions.
“She is definitely a progressive and unabashedly so,” Jung said. “Jenny is a part of our creative and art class of Reno, and she is a gem for our community.”
Brekhus hails from Old Southwest Reno, known for its vibrant Midtown District that emphasizes a movement toward highlighting Reno’s culture and art. During her campaign, Brekhus didn’t only use campaign signs and pamphlets, but she walked neighborhoods daily; she made herself personable, knocked on doors and found out what her constituents wanted and didn’t want in their city.
“I wore down shoe leather and rallied support,” Brekhus said. “There are a lot of people in Ward 1 who are intellectual and really understand big cities so I feel I was a good reflection of my wards interest.”
Family and a city
Today, Brekhus sits in her office, and is about to make a call to tell a staff member what she thought about a meeting when she stops and says, “You know, it is kind of weird being here, usually I find that I work really well from home and I have a lot of meetings outside of city hall. I’m not here in this office much.”
Her schedule is so unpredictable that using her calendar is key for balancing family and work. She tries to take her family with her to most events, and work from a computer at home so that she is there with a snack in hand whenever a starving Eliana gets home from school. When she does work from home her Boston Terrier, Chato, is usually following her around and looking up at her wondering what is next. Admittedly a cat person, Brekhus would rather have her white-haired cat, Gato Blanco, sitting on her lap while she works.
“My husband and daughter are both afraid of him because he will lick you, then bite you,” She said. “Armando can’t stand all of the white hair, but I am just like, ‘Well, wear white more often!’”
There are two things that Brekhus enjoys doing most: hiking and reading. In her adult years, she has gravitated towards history and non-fiction books, but her husband has tried to introduce more fiction into her literary diet.
And just the other weekend, Brekhus took off her professional attire, threw on her hiking clothes, went to the Pacific Crest Trail with her family for a hike.