The City’s premier backstage pass

A Cookingham-Noll fellow rotates through departments and makes a choice

Jordan Brown

A 360-degree tour of the city. A backstage pass. A firsthand experience of the inner workings of government. That’s how KCMO’s innovative fellowship program for college students sometimes is described. And when Jordan Brown received notice that he would be part of the program, he was honored and elated.

“It’s one of the premier opportunities for graduate students,” says Brown, who was enrolled at the University of Kansas at the time. “You get to see how everything is glued together. The whole experience was outstanding.”

The Cookingham-Noll Fellowships provide a stipend for two college students to rotate through various City departments over a two-year period. Afterward, the students often are hired into professional positions. A four-month stint in both the City Manager’s Office and the Finance Department are required, and students select other departments according to their interest.

Brown, who served as a fellow from 2013-15, chose Convention and Entertainment Facilities and Parks and Recreation as part of his rotation. He liked hearing the discussion about a new convention hotel and witnessing how close the city came to getting the Republican presidential convention. At Parks he helped put together an information package for the department’s accreditation process and he was able to compare KCMO’s operations with a similar but smaller department in Lawrence, where he previously interned. In the end, however, Brown was attracted to Finance, where staff “get to see a little bit of everything the city does.” At the close of the program he landed a full-time job there as a budget analyst.

“I was surprised by how strenuous the budget preparation was,” he says, citing the need to balance funding requests against a firm timeline and limited resources. “During November to February there’s just a lot of work and planning that takes place. We always exceed 40-hour weeks. That’s budget season.”

In school Brown remembers studying the growth of public administration as a profession and learning how L. Perry Cookingham, city manager of Kansas City for nearly two decades, was a key figure in reforming local government after the Pendergast era. When Cookingham entered office, the city was $20 million in debt. Within six months he had trimmed the payroll by 2,000 people and within a year and a half he had eliminated the city’s debt. He also led a period when annexations more than doubled the city’s size from 60 to 130 square miles.

“Cookingham’s reforms helped shaped the profession,” says Bob O’Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association which met in Kansas City in September. “The emphasis on equity, ethics and accountability was a brand new model.”

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A fellowship program established to honor Cookingham later was renamed to include Rich Noll, who came to City Hall as a Cookingham Fellow, himself, in the early ’80s, working his way up to assistant city manager by 1995. Noll, highly respected for his integrity and leadership, died suddenly at age 51.

Beyond the program’s namesakes, Brown has discovered many current exemplary leaders among KCMO staff. “There’s a lot of great role models here, and a lot of best practices to learn.”

He says the fellowship experience definitely expanded his professional knowledge. “In school you mostly work alone at your own speed, but in the real world relationships matter so much. Collaboration is a core skill and the better the collaboration, the better the product.”

That’s a lesson that goes beyond the books—a tenet that L. Perry Cookingham and Rich Noll surely would be proud to link their names with during any exploration of city government.