As deputy city manager, Keene is focused on improving her mountain town.
As deputy city manager, Keene is focused on improving her mountain town.
Keene, a resident of Flagstaff since 2004, was selected out of nearly 200 candidates for the Flagstaff position after her final interview April 6. “When I left my last position, I was given a painting of the San Francisco Peaks that hangs in my office in Sedona,” Keene recalled. “Now, I’m excited to look at the real deal every day!”
Keene joins City Manager Greg Clifton and Senior Deputy City Manager Shannon Anderson on the city’s executive leadership team. “We are very excited to have Joanne join our team,” Clifton said. “She knows Flagstaff, her credentials are amazing, and she will be able to hit the ground running. We welcome her and look forward to her leadership.”
In addition to her recent Sedona job, her “amazing” credentials include a post as deputy county manager for Coconino County, as well as her position as executive vice president and chief of staff at Northern Arizona University. In total, Keene, 48, has amassed an impressive 25 years in federal, state and local government roles serving the State of Arizona, including government relations director for Coconino County and public information officer for the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
That quarter century of service also includes eight years working for the U.S. House of Representatives, with five of those years in Washington, D.C.
She also is a certified public manager through Arizona State University.
Keene’s interest in local government came early at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe during a “Tempe Government Days” event. “Students could apply to shadow an elected official or department director,” she said. “I was selected to shadow the community development director. This experience gave me an initial exposure to local government, and I was certainly intrigued. After working at the state and federal level, I quickly realized that local government is where you get the most accomplished and it’s the best way to make an impact.”
Keene is a graduate of Northern Arizona University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and broadcast journalism and a master’s in public administration. She put her journalism skills to use with several internships at radio stations, including an internship for local broadcast personality Mitch Strohman on his morning show at KAFF radio and as a DJ at Sunny 97.
“My goal was to work in radio, but after doing an internship at the Arizona State Legislature, I caught the policy bug and moved into this arena,” she said. “I have used my degree for my work as a public information officer and several communication-related roles. I love to write and do my best to use my journalism to help tell the story of the organization.”
Keene begins her new position aware of the many challenges facing the city and dedicated to making a difference. “My skills are bringing people together to solve complex problems. The city’s staff and elected officials are forward-thinking and committed. I am truly grateful to work alongside them in this role and can’t wait to get started!”
Last year’s devastating wildfire season was at the heart of her decision to return to Flagstaff. “During my interview, I told a story about when the Pipeline Fire was burning in our community. I remember getting in my car to drive to Sedona to head to work and I could see the fire burning on the mountain through my rear-view mirror. It was heartbreaking to leave a community I love and work and contribute in another community. This is one of the reasons I applied for the role. I want to contribute to the community where I live and that I love.”
Meanwhile, she acknowledges that her experience in Sedona was valuable for her work in Flagstaff, as both cities face similar issues. “Sedona is impacted by housing challenges and the impacts of short-term rentals. Sedona is always dealing with a large influx of visitors that has challenged local infrastructure. Both communities are having issues with workforce and ensuring there is housing for workers.”
She notes that both communities strive to manage the impact of wildfires and floods. “I’m really proud of the things the cities of Flagstaff and Sedona have done.”
Above all, she says, her work in government requires being a problem solver, a good listener, politically astute and willing to be flexible.
Keene’s earliest years were not spent in the United States. She was born in the United Kingdom and moved to the U.S. when she was 8. Her father, Brian, was an aerospace engineer and worked for Martin Marietta in New Orleans. The family, including her mother, Sheila, and her sister, lived in New Orleans for a few years before relocating to the Phoenix area, settling in Tempe. Two brothers still live in the UK.
Keene obtained her U.S. citizenship while in high school. Several years after graduating from NAU, a challenging offer presented itself. “I was given the opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., to work on Capitol Hill – which was always a dream of mine.”
She assisted two Arizona members and focused on working on behalf of Arizona, specifically, the rural parts of the state. “I worked on some major policy initiatives, including creating the authorization for the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU, expanding Petrified Forest National Park, tribal water settlements and appropriations projects,” she said. “It has helped me understand how to navigate policy issues.”
While on Capitol Hill, she met her current husband, John Comer, who was born and raised there. They met through kickball. “After five years in D.C. and after some tough years with Sept. 11 and the anthrax threats, we decided to move West. It was not hard to convince him to move to Flagstaff in 2004.”
They were married shortly after relocating to Northern Arizona. The move to Flagstaff has been rewarding, she says, including her association with NAU.
“I love what NAU brings to this community through arts and culture, athletics and the vibrancy that students bring to our community. When I was first hired, I was asked to help with community relations. During this, I helped bridge relationships with the county and city, as well as create a neighborhood liaison position that is shared between City of Flagstaff and NAU. I’m proud of the work I did during this time and look forward to continuing this work when working for the City of Flagstaff.”
In her off time, Keene enjoys trail running with her husband, who works in finance for Coconino County, and their rescue dog, Mabel. “She came to us at 5 weeks old, injured after suffering a major bite and a broken jaw. Her name was Angel at the shelter because when she came in, they didn’t think she would make it through the night.”
The couple also loves to hike in the Grand Canyon and around Flagstaff, especially on the Arizona Trail by Aspen Corner in the fall. Keene also loves to cook. “I love cooking because it allows me to finish something (a recipe),” she said. “In the jobs I have served, it’s rare to finish a project in a day. Cooking is the way I release my stress!”
She also loves how her career path has brought her back to her mountain town. “I love Flagstaff for so many reasons. The people in Flagstaff are friendly and caring. The community is innovative and supportive. It really feels like I’m coming home.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN
Courtesy Photo: Joanne Keene and her husband, John Comer, enjoyed a trail-running trip in the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy.