After 26 years, county administrator to retire; says contentious jail vote helped him reach the decision
photo by: Elvyn Jones
For more than a quarter of a century, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has looked out on South Park from his second-floor office in the southwest corner of the Douglas County Courthouse.
He has not tired of the view from his desk, nor has he lost his passion for the work he does at it.
“I have loved this job,” he said. “I won’t say I’ve loved every minute of it, but I have loved this job for a very long time, and I love this community and county government.”
Despite his love for the work, Weinaug said it’s time for him to hand the reins of county government to a younger generation. He will retire Friday from the job he accepted in 1992. An avid bicyclist, he looks forward to riding more and spending more time with his four grandchildren, for whom he has already picked out bikes.
There’s also a professional factor, Weinaug said. Public administrators have expiration dates, he said. It’s a point when citizens and community leaders don’t turn to them for advice or welcome phone calls. He reached that point on May 15 when county voters rejected Proposition 1, which would have funded a $44 million expansion of the county jail, as well as an $11 million behavioral health campus.
“That was really the first time I had to question if I had been here long enough that my credibility as a leader was brought into question, and the necessity of meeting mental health needs and to meet the immediate needs at the jail were so pressing that someone who hadn’t been here so long should be the one to lead them,” he said. “That was the event that caused me to start thinking for the first time if I could still be effective in this position.”
Beating the odds
Weinaug said his ability to avoid such a point for 26 years was far from typical. The average tenure of a public administrator is six or seven years, he said. When he returned to his hometown of Lawrence to be county administrator at the age of 40, his ambition was that it would be his last job in a career that included previous stops at Scott City; Zion, Ill.; and Ardmore, Okla.
“After a few months on the job, Mark Buhler — one of the commissioners who hired me — said, ‘You know, the chances that you’ll be here when you retire aren’t all that great,'” he said. “I told him I knew that, but that was my hope. So I took great delight when I retired that I could call him and say, ‘Mark, I made it.'”
Mike Amyx, who also served on the County Commission who hired Weinaug, said he wasn’t surprised by Weinaug’s long tenure. It was obvious in Weinaug’s interview he loved his hometown and wanted to serve the community, Amyx said.
Once Weinaug got on the job, he did the homework needed to give commissioners a thorough background understanding of issues, Amyx said. Weinaug was also willing to share that thoroughness with residents, he said.
“He’s a historian,” he said. “He was always very honest with his opinions and presentations. He was able to chime in and give commissioners food for thought. When you contacted Craig, you were almost guaranteed he would call you back. I appreciated that about him. He wanted to make sure you got the answers to your questions.”
Although disappointed with the jail expansion vote, Weinaug said he doesn’t resent the forces aligned against the proposal. He shares their underlying value of wanting what is best for jail inmates and sees the opponents as part of a strong tradition of public involvement in Douglas County, which first took root with its Free State founding and was reinforced with the activism of the 1960s and 1970s. For local governments, that tradition can mean a pushback on a variety of issues, from the two-decade fight against the South Lawrence Trafficway to debates on the direction of economic development.
“This community needs developers,” he said. “It needs people who are the social conscience of the community. It needs folks who care about the homeless, and people who care about land use and protection of prime soil. Because Lawrence is Lawrence, those people often pit themselves against each other.”
That friction may require more effort and time on the part of local governments, but debate can enhance the end result, Weinaug said. He points to the long battle to build the South Lawrence Trafficway. The compromises that finally led to its construction provided amenities like the bikeway he often uses and the expanded Baker Wetlands, which the bikeway overlooks.
“Once we get through the challenges that are special to leadership within the context of this community, we generally come out pretty well,” he said.
Weinaug also sees that tradition of community activism reflected in the county commissioners he has served.
“I’ve always had county commissioners who were willing to lead and solve community problems, whether or not it fit into the traditional role of county government,” he said. “Helping to locate and support a homeless shelter is not a traditional role of counties. Coming up with a way to build a crisis center for mental health is not a statutory obligation of county government.”
He counts the opening of the homeless shelter and last month’s voter approval to build an $11 million behavioral health campus as two of the proudest accomplishments realized during his 26 years as county administrator. Both were realized through the efforts of county commissioners, staff, other county elected officials and the community, Weinaug said. Other highlights of his career include the opening of Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, the consolidation of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical and his stewardship over the county’s finances that has produced a bond rating that is among the top 6 percent of the nation’s 3,000 counties, he said.
Three of those accomplishments — Peaslee, the homeless shelter and the merger of city and county fire and medical services — were done in partnership with the city of Lawrence, Weinaug said. It is a strong and productive partnership that extends back to the early 1950s with the joint funding of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, he said.
The city of Lawrence and the county soon will review their many interlocal agreements that have benefited residents of Lawrence and Douglas County, Weinaug said. There is some disagreement heading into the talks, but that is a sign of partners working together to solve problems, he said.
“Counties and cities that do nothing together get along great because they don’t have any issues to work out,” he said “There is a need to renegotiate those agreements and update them. My hope is when we negotiate those, we recognize we accomplish more working together, looking out for the interest of all the residents of Lawrence and Douglas County rather than focusing on if the details of the agreements are absolutely fair to residents of one unit of government or another.”
Weinaug is leaving county government at a time the Lawrence City Commission has expressed interest in exploring unification of city and county governments as a way to increase efficiency. Weinaug isn’t a fan of the concept. Lawrence and Douglas County don’t fit the same molds as the two counties in the state that have unified with city governments, Greeley and Wyandotte. Greeley County is a sparsely populated county whose rural residents found common interest with the roughly 775 people living in the county seat of Tribune, he said, while Kansas City, Kan., makes up more than 90 percent of Wyandotte County. Meanwhile, Douglas County contains three cities other than Lawrence, as well as a substantial unincorporated area.
“I challenge you to find five people in Eudora, Baldwin City or Lecompton who believe Lawrence would do a good job of protecting their interests,” he said. “For residents of the unincorporated areas, county government is their only local government. There isn’t really any structure that involves a merger that would protect all the taxpayers.”
Weinaug will leave one legacy that goes beyond Douglas County, said eight-year Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky, who will become interim county administrator Saturday. That effort was recognized in 2017 when Weinaug was awarded the International City and County Managers Association’s Cookingham Award for the county’s internship program for young administrative professionals.
“Craig Weinaug is legendary in the field of local government administration for his willingness to mentor young professionals,” she said. “Craig was a mentor of mine before I started with Douglas County. I never worked for someone who has been so open and willing to support the professional development of staff.”
In his desk, Weinaug has a list of about 20 former interns who now work in public administrative jobs throughout the United States. But there is one person for whom he has no intention of providing advice. That is the person who follows him as the next county administrator, whether it be Plinsky or someone else the County Commission hires next year.
“I do not intend to darken the door of the Courthouse,” he said. “I might be back for a Christmas party or I’ll come for a Thanksgiving dinner, but I will not be that guy who comes back to say “That’s not how I would have done it,’ or ‘That’s not the way it was done in the day.'”
Douglas County will have a retirement reception for Craig Weinaug from 2 to 5 p.m. Friday at Flory Meeting Hall in the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 1930 Harper St. The program will start at 3:30 p.m.