‘I feel really ready,’ incoming county commissioner says as she prepares to take office
photo by: Contributed
Starting this week, there’s a new face serving on the Douglas County Commission.
Karen Willey is joining the commission in place of Shannon Portillo, who’s moving away for a job at Arizona State University and who resigned effective Saturday. Willey was selected for the seat at an August convention of Democratic Party precinct committee people who live in the 3rd County Commission District. After she’s sworn in ahead of Wednesday’s commission meeting, Willey will finish out Portillo’s term, which expires in January of 2025.
Willey’s background includes stints as a business owner, one in affordable housing and the other in equipment manufacturing, and 25 years of nonprofit experience. She currently works as a consultant and grant writer for urban health, housing and human services nonprofits in the Kansas City area.
Willey has served on the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission for six years and is also active locally in a number of volunteer roles. For one, she’s the president of Baldwin Retirement Apartment Complex Inc., a housing nonprofit designed to support senior citizens. Willey also serves on the Lawrence NAACP’s legal redress committee and is nearing 10 years of service as a volunteer firefighter.
The mechanism to replace Portillo wasn’t like a conventional election, and it was triggered because of the time left in Portillo’s term. If she had resigned in the first half of her term, it would have prompted a special election and would have appeared on the ballot in the recent August primary election.
That’s not lost on Willey, who will earn a commissioner salary of $41,226, according to county spokesperson Karrey Britt. Willey ran for the seat she will now occupy in the 2020 election, losing in the primary to Portillo, and called her previous run “hugely valuable” in connecting with folks in her commission district in advance. Willey told the Journal-World Friday that she planned to be accountable to her constituents by having frank, open conversations, and listening to and learning from them in her decision-making process.
“If you could make decisions in a vacuum, the staff could do it on their own,” Willey said. “The County Commission is that bridge between local government and people, so being open, being responsive is key.”
Willey also thinks it’s important to honor the work of the people who have come before her on the commission, recognizing that leadership roles provide access to a much wider breadth of information than can sometimes be seen from the outside looking in.
In the roughly two weeks since she was selected for the seat, Willey has been busy. She’s been meeting regularly with staff like Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky to get up to speed on how her position works, and has also spoken with the county’s director of behavioral health projects, Bob Tryanski, about the scope of his work; she called the county’s behavioral health landscape a priority. Willey said she has also been connecting with leaders guiding county partner agencies and other organizations.
The prep work has also involved some thought about how Willey might fill the roles Portillo is leaving behind. Each commissioner serves in a number of committee and board roles, Willey said, so the group will have to work out where its new member fits in that puzzle. One good example is Portillo’s involvement as a county liaison on the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; while she’s followed that body before, Willey said she’s been re-familiarizing herself with the council in case she takes over that role.
On the whole, though, she said she’s feeling well-prepared for her first official action Wednesday.
“I feel really ready to step into it,” Willey said.
Ahead of the convention last month, Willey told the Journal-World that her experience on the Planning Commission was an especially good example of how prepared she was for a seat on the County Commission. That time overlapped with two major local policy projects — drafting new utility-scale solar regulations for the county and putting together Plan 2040, the City of Lawrence and Douglas County’s comprehensive plan.
“It’s also, for six years, individual residents of Douglas County and Lawrence — neighborhoods, specifically — came forward and talked about their needs, their wants, their desires, their fears for their part of the county,” Willey said. “…That was really kind of my step into public service.”
Willey thinks the variety of areas she’s lived in around the county will also serve her well. She has lived in the county since 1993; she has lived all around Lawrence and now resides in the rural unincorporated area of the 3rd District. It’s been a lived experience that she said has illustrated how important it is to build connections around the county.
“I feel like the mission of every county commissioner is the whole county,” Willey said. “You’re the main contact person for your voters in your district, but the mission is the whole county.”
Expanding on that, Willey said it’s important that if the County Commission expands from three members to five — which is a question on the ballot this November — that everyone elected is accountable to the entire county, not just Lawrence as the most populated city.
The Douglas County Commission’s 3rd District covers parts of southern and western Lawrence and western Douglas County.