The Kelly administration on Friday announced several upcoming leadership changes, including the departure of Chief of Staff Joda Thongnopnua and Senior Advisor Kirsten Yates, as well as the appointment of Tony Sammons as chief equity officer, Kevin Roig as the director of Public Affairs, and Don Walker as interim administrator of Community Development.
“Public service is a relay race - it’s about accomplishing as much as possible within the time we have before passing the baton off to the next person,” Mayor Kelly said. “I’m proud of my talented, dedicated team, who over these past two years has worked hard to both bridge opportunity gaps and create new opportunities for Chattanoogans from every walk of life. As we enter the next chapter of this administration and welcome some new folks to continue carrying out the One Chattanooga vision, I’m grateful to those who helped us get where we are today as they prepare to pass their batons.”
Mr. Thongnopnua is planning to step down at the beginning of May to take a role with the National Science Foundation. He has been appointed to a role within the National Science Foundation’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate established by the CHIPS and Science Act passed by Congress and charged with the critical mission of advancing U.S. competitiveness through investments that accelerate the development of key technologies and address pressing societal and economic challenges.
Mr. Thongnopnua has served in city government since the beginning of the Kelly administration, first as chief policy officer and then as Mayor Kelly’s chief of staff, and played a key role in the priorities and successes of the first two years of the Kelly administration, from the One Chattanooga plan to the administration’s $30 million American Rescue Plan community investment approach.
“Since the first day of my administration, Joda has been an integral part of my team. When I came into office, I described a vision of One Chattanooga that challenged our community to close the economic gaps that have persisted in our city for decades. For the past two years, I have relied on Joda to help me do just that by turning One Chattanooga into tangible results,” said Mayor Kelly. “Chattanooga is better off as a result of his hard work, and I am excited to see what he’ll achieve for our country in his new role with the National Science Foundation, where I know he will also continue to be a real champion for Chattanooga from Washington, D.C.”
The administration will announce who will succeed Mr. Thongnopnua in his role as chief of staff in the coming weeks, prior to his departure.
Senior Advisor for Communications and Digital Strategy Kirsten Yates also announced she would be transitioning out of her role leading the administration’s communications office in mid-May. Ms. Yates will be succeeded by Kevin Roig.
Officials said, "Ms. Yates has played a vital role in shaping the administration’s goals and has served as a senior member of the mayor’s team for the last year. Yates spearheaded one of Mayor Kelly’s top priorities by creating a more thoughtful, cohesive, and informed dialogue about the most complex and pressing issues facing our community. From keeping Chattanoogans informed about the mayor’s agenda to helping drive the creation of the mayor’s Roadmap to End Gun Violence, Ms. Yates played a key role in nearly all major administration policies."
Prior to joining the city of Chattanooga, Ms. Yates served as deputy lead of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) infection control education and partnership collaborative, and holds over 12 years’ experience in different communication leadership roles in government programs, social marketing campaigns, as well as crisis and emergency responses. She worked for more than eight years at the CDC, leading communication efforts for programs like the COVID-19 vaccine distribution initiative and vaccine effectiveness research.
Mayor Kelly said, “Kirsten has been a critical strategic voice and a first-rate communicator for my administration. She has played a key role in not only advancing our One Chattanooga agenda, but helping shape it for the better—from positioning our city as a leader in sustainability to helping launch efforts to build new digital infrastructure for our residents. I am so grateful to her for all she’s done for Chattanooga, and to her husband and three young children for letting us borrow Kirsten for the past year.”
Ms. Yates will be succeeded by Kevin Roig, described as a seasoned public affairs, communications, and operations strategist who brings a decade of political, policy, and campaign management experience to the city of Chattanooga. Appointed by Mayor Kelly, Mr. Roig joined the city this week. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director for U.S. House of Representatives member Garret Graves on Capitol Hill from 2015 to 2022, where he was at the forefront of successful legislative communications campaigns across an array of issues, from infrastructure and disaster response to energy and the environment, it was stated.
“I am looking forward to welcoming Kevin to our team. He brings a tremendous amount of public service experience and he has a clear understanding of how to build broad coalitions and consensus for getting things done for residents,” Mayor Kelly said. “Kevin is exactly the kind of talent we’re looking to bring to Chattanooga and I am proud to have him join our team.”
The Kelly administration also announced two additional appointments who will serve in key roles.
Mayor Kelly announced that he will submit his appointment of Tony Sammons to be the City’s next chief equity officer to the Chattanooga City Council for confirmation. Mr. Sammons currently serves as the city’s administrator for the Department of Community Development and has served in city government for more than 16 years, and previously served as Deputy Chief Operating Officer under Mayor Andy Berke’s administration.
“Tony leads by example, and I have to say I’ve been extremely impressed by his ability to galvanize a team, take on big challenges and do it in a way that upholds the dignity and respect of those serving alongside him,” Mayor Kelly said. “He possesses the type of wisdom and leadership abilities that are what we need more of in city government, and I look forward to what he’ll accomplish as we work together to bridge the equity gaps across our community.”
Sammons will be succeeded in his current role as head of the Department of Community Development on an interim basis by Don Walker, who currently serves as the Deputy Administrator for the Department of Community Development.
Prior to joining the city last year, Walker spent 25 years as the Director of Guest Services and Operations for the Tennessee Aquarium, where he implemented multiple company-wide programs and processes to improve operations and guest satisfaction, including the development of a company-wide customer service and training program that led to sustained increases in customer satisfaction ratings.