In September, Ashley Nystrom assumed the newly created chief of staff position in the city manager’s office. Nystrom’s background is actually in environmental science, and she started her career with the city more than seven years ago in its water utility services department. While working in water utility, she was recruited for a part-time legislative liaison role by former city manager, Wiley Stem. From there, she eventually transitioned to the city manager’s office full time as the executive coordinator, the position she mostly recently served in. Although she spends her days in an office behind a computer, Nystrom said she and her husband, Andrew, are very much “outdoorsy people,” spending their free time working in their garden, visiting the Lake Waco Wetlands or strolling through the farmers market on Saturday mornings. Nystrom recently discussed the duties of her new role, the transition from a field position to a desk job and how her family ended up living in the country with horses, chickens, bees, barn cats and a dog.
WACOAN: Tell me a little bit about your background.
Nystrom: I have an environmental health-environmental science background. I’ve been with the city for seven years now. I started out in the water utilities lab, analyzing wastewater samples, then moved from there into our stormwater division. I was looking at water quality in local water bodies and how surface runoff impacts that. That was my first three or four years with the city, in an environmental role.
Wiley Stem, the former city manager who just recently retired, knew me through a couple of other people in water utilities, and they needed someone to fill a legislative liaison role, and he thought I’d be a good fit. He asked me to try it out, and I did and enjoyed it, splitting the time [between my two positions]. When Wiley became city manager, I was actually going to go back full time into stormwater, and he asked me to stay, so I’ve been [in the city manager’s office] since then.
WACOAN: When did you start in the city manager’s office?
Nystrom: It was 2017 when I started doing the split time, and I was still doing some stormwater and some legislative stuff as well.
WACOAN: Since moving full-time to the city manager’s office, have you missed being out in the field?
Nystrom: That was always a fun part of my job, getting to see a lot of Waco, and obviously, that was what my degree was in, in the environment. Just getting out and seeing the creeks and the green spaces was always a really great part of the job.
Now, a lot of my day is spent either in meetings or at my computer. I have a standing desk, so I get a little bit of movement, but yeah, I’m completely in the office now. Especially now with COVID, we don’t go to out-of-office meetings very much, a lot of it is virtual.
WACOAN: You said Wiley Stem recommended you for the liaison role. Why do you think he thought you would be a good fit?
Nystrom: I think he just saw that I had an analytical mind but also an ability to communicate things simply.
WACOAN: What do you do in your legislative analysis role?
Nystrom: During the legislative session — [Texas Legislature meets] every other year — [our legislators will] file bills. I think last session was over 7,000 bills, and a lot of times those will impact cities. I think it was close to 2,000 would have had some effect on a city.
I’ll work with a state lobby team, the Texas Municipal League, just kind of keeping an eye on things and providing input to our legislators where we need to or going down to the [state capitol] and speaking at a hearing on a bill saying, ‘Hey, this would really negatively impact the city and here’s how.’ So just trying to keep an eye out because there’s been a lot of animosity toward cities from the legislature in the past couple of sessions.
WACOAN: How often do you get to speak at a hearing?
Nystrom: It depends. I went down probably a handful of times last legislative session. I didn’t actually speak on any, but I’ve provided written comments. A lot of times, if it’s something that we’re going to get up and speak on, I might provide a short statement or the mayor or a city manager or our council member might actually speak to the hearing committee. There are other cities who are a lot more active, especially the bigger ones, but if you don’t get down there and let them know [how a bill will impact your city], then there’s no way they’re going to know, so those comment periods are really important.
WACOAN: What all do you do in your current role as chief of staff?
Nystrom: It’s a really interesting role. It’s kind of hard to nail down, but basically, I need to be aware of everything that the management team is working on and what’s going on in the organization. I fill a lot of gaps, so if there’s something that someone’s not working on, a lot of times I’ll pick up those kinds of projects or just small assignments.
I still do the legislation analysis. In January, the next Texas legislative session will start, so we’re gearing up for that.
WACOAN: How has the pandemic affected your role?
Nystrom: Before this, I didn’t work as directly with the whole management team. I reported to Wiley. We have five people on the city manager team, and that’s changed a little bit over the past couple years, but you would never see all of them in the office at once. They’re always really busy.
But in March, when everything started shutting down and outside meetings were canceled and everything started going virtual all of a sudden, now they’re all hands-on deck. It was full COVID [response] for weeks or months, just daily briefing meetings. Now it’s started to go back to normal, but yeah, it was seven days a week for the management team.
WACOAN: Is there anything that was put in place that might be part of a new normal?
Nystrom: Virtual meetings for sure I think will be a new normal for a long time. Right now, all of our council meetings are virtual, and that’s only possible under the governor’s order, so eventually council will be back in person. But a lot of staff meetings and departmental meetings, it saves a lot of time.
We have over 1,500 employees, and they’re all over the city, so to get department heads together in one room is a big move. We have monthly department meetings. Lately, we’ve been having weekly meetings about COVID. At one point it was even daily, so being able to do that virtually saves a lot of time and money because you’re not having these leaders spending time traveling to go to a meeting. Virtual meetings, for sure, are one thing that’s a new normal.
WACOAN: Where are you originally from?
Nystrom: I’m from the Houston area, Montgomery, Texas.
WACOAN: What do you like to do for fun in Waco?
Nystrom: My husband and I, we have two kids, Evelyn and Daniel. We live out in the country. We love to get out on the river or go to the lake and go to the parks, take the kids walking. We love the Lake Waco Wetlands.
Downtown is fun. When we do make it in on the weekends, we go to the farmers market, walk around, take the kids.
We live on some land, and so a lot of our free time is spent doing projects together, working outdoors. I have a garden. It’s a lot of fun to grow our own food, and we have chickens. Our house was built in the ’70s, and we’ve lived there almost two years now, so we’ve had lots of house projects and land projects.
We have honeybees. This is our second year. It’s funny. It was what I wanted to do, so I did the class and all this stuff. We had one hive and I was pregnant with our youngest, so it got to the point where I couldn’t lift the stuff very easily. My husband took it over, and he loves it. We now have eight hives, and he does it all.
WACOAN: About how many bees are in eight hives?
Nystrom: You can have thousands of bees in a hive. It’s a lot of bees.
WACOAN: When do you harvest the honey?
Nystrom: It depends on the year. Last year, we did a harvest in the early summer. This year, we didn’t do it until July. A lot of it depends on the rainfall and when they’re bringing in nectar. And when it’s really dry, there’s not a lot of it. My husband sold a little bit of it, and then gifts. People love honey.
WACOAN: What interested you in beekeeping?
Nystrom: We have about 5 acres, and bees are good for pollination. Just supporting honeybees across the United States, it felt like the right thing to do. We had the land, and we had the space and the ability to do it, just for fun. To benefit the environment and also to get honey. It’s a good reward.
WACOAN: What made you want to live in the country versus in town or closer to your work?
Nystrom: Well, my husband grew up in Peru, and we’ve both always been outdoorsy people. We like the country and kind of a slower pace of life. I grew up as a young child in the city, but we’ve always had family who farmed and lived in the country. It’s just something we both knew we always would want to do.
I keep adding things as we go along — I have horses also. Buddy, Jake and Scarlett. They’re paint-quarter horse mixes. I’ve had them since I was in junior high. They’re getting a little older now, but they’re on our land.
WACOAN: Do you still ride your horses?
Nystrom: I do still ride them. I haven’t ridden very much since having the kids. But yeah, I’ve always loved horses. I lived overseas for a little bit as well when I was young, and when we moved back, we moved to the country, and my parents got the horses. I had done a little bit of riding before, but really, I learned to ride with these horses. We grew up together in our partnership of rider and horse. I never did anything competitively. I taught horseback riding lessons for a little while.
WACOAN: OK. You have bees. You have horses. What else do you have on your land?
Nystrom: That’s about it. We did do pigs at one point, but we don’t raise them. Right now, we have the horses, bees, chickens, a garden, a family dog and barn cats.
WACOAN: What types of things do you grow in your garden?
Nystrom: This year, what was really successful for me was tomatoes, but I try to do a little of everything. We love peppers and making our own salsa and tomato sauce for spaghetti. Grew some watermelon. My chickens tore up my pumpkin vines, so I only got one pumpkin, but that was really fun. Herbs, lots of different herbs.
This fall, we’re redoing our front area. We’ll have a pollinator garden, so lots of different flowers and herbs and stuff for the bees and other pollinators that will benefit from that also, not just honeybees.
We also did some fruit trees, and potatoes were a really fun thing to grow. We grew them in grow bags, which I’d never done before. You just dump the bag out at the end of the season, and you had a bag full of potatoes. We did some Yukon gold potatoes and then some purple potatoes and red ones.
WACOAN: What took you overseas when you were young?
Nystrom: My dad’s job. He worked for an oil company. My dad traveled a lot for work. We only ever moved with him once and that was to Indonesia. We lived in Indonesia for two years. That was a great experience.
WACOAN: I’m sure that not only with the pandemic but also with little kids it’s less so right now, but do you and your husband like to travel?
Nystrom: We do. I think we would probably travel more if we had more time. He grew up in Peru. He was a missionary kid. But he was born and raised there, so he loves Peru. I’ve been to Peru once with him since we’ve been married and would love to go back.
Ashley’s 5 Must-Have Items
1. Chips and salsa. Just like a silly, easy one for me would be chips and salsa. The spicier the better. I like to sweat a little bit when I eat.
2. A coffee mug. At work, one thing that I get teased about a little bit is I usually have at least two cups or mugs on my desk at all times. I always have a cup of coffee going and then some ice water. Just to help me stay hydrated but also keep me going throughout the day.
3. A ball cap. On the weekends, especially with this weather, my favorite thing to wear is just a ball cap and sweater. Just be comfy. My favorite hat is a Waco, Texas hat from Waco Hat Company.
4. My two Summer Ellis necklaces. I bought one after each of my kids was born, and I wear at least one of them every day. Just a special everyday way for me to feel a little connection to my kids while I’m at work.
5. Greenery. There’s just something about having plants in your office with you and then also just gardening at home and keeping something alive.