For nearly three years, Mike Rees has been the public -- some would say divisive -- face of KDOT's efforts to complete the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Marty Matthews, Kansas Department of Transportation spokesman, confirmed Thursday new Secretary Deb Miller had told Rees "she would be seeking a change in the (agency's) chief counsel."
"I wouldn't read it as having anything to do with the SLT," Matthews said. "She's a new secretary, and chief counsel is an important position -- she just thought she'd be more comfortable with someone else."
Rees said Thursday he had expected Miller's decision, but didn't know whether it was a result of his advocacy role on the trafficway.
"It's not like it was a crushing blow," he said. "She's entitled to have whoever she wants as chief counsel."
Activists on both sides of the trafficway debate said Rees' departure didn't signal a change of direction by KDOT.
"I don't know that we can read anything into this with the (Gov.) Sebelius administration," said Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones, an opponent of Rees' efforts to complete the trafficway.
Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson agreed.
"I would hope this doesn't mean there's any change in the KDOT position on the trafficway," said Johnson, who favors the road's completion. "I can't imagine why there would be."
A route for the trafficway has been sought since 1985, when county commissioners announced plans for the road. City and state officials see it as key to alleviating traffic in southern Lawrence.
The proposed bypass would connect Kansas Highway 10 on the city's east side with Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence. The western leg of the trafficway has been finished and terminates at U.S. Highway 59 in southern Lawrence.
By July 2000, though, the trafficway's completion had been scuttled after years of controversy because federal officials said they wouldn't approve a route without consent of Haskell Indian Nations University. Opponents said the road shouldn't go through the Baker Wetlands that border the Haskell campus.
That's when Rees stepped in, ostensibly as a "private citizen" pursuing revival of the trafficway. His efforts bloomed into a full-fledged effort by KDOT that resulted this month in an announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that a 32nd Street route through the Baker Wetlands is the best path for the road. KDOT officials later said they were holding tight the project's purse strings until anticipated litigation in the matter was resolved.
Along the way, Rees became a lightning rod for those who said completion of the road through the wetlands was culturally and environmentally destructive. During a September meeting, Jones told Rees he was a "poster boy for bigotry."
"By his nature and approach, Mike polarized the SLT discussion even more than it was already polarized," Jones said Thursday. "It became about personalities and distrust as much as it was ... about moving traffic east and west across the Wakarusa Valley."
Johnson, meanwhile, praised Rees.
"He has done a job perhaps no one else could've done in reviving the trafficway as a live issue, and working with all parties to find a compromise that will work," Johnson said.
And Johnson noted the trafficway debate had outlasted many of its participants over the years.
"The evident need for the road is bigger than any one individual," Johnson said.
"The trafficway is a project that needs an advocate," Rees said. "I hope somebody steps forward."