Former Douglas County commissioners proud of public service, hope for same from new commissioners
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Former County Commissioners Nancy Thellman and Michelle Derusseau tackled a lot of big projects in their time in county government — a new behavioral health campus, criminal justice reform efforts, a revamped set of land use regulations — but some of their proudest achievements are a lot smaller and more personal.
Resolving a zoning issue with a property. Meeting with a resident to help them navigate the county’s regulations. And any other time when the County Commission directly helped residents out with the problems in their lives, no matter how small they might seem from the outside.
“So much of what we do at the county is … the things you don’t see or hear about at our meetings,” said Derusseau, who served on the commission for four years. “It’s personal issues that people need help with navigating the system or resolving (a problem). That’s our job — it’s all about people.”
Now, two new commissioners have taken the reins: Shannon Portillo, who won in the 3rd District after Derusseau decided not to seek reelection, and Shannon Reid, who defeated Thellman in the 2nd District Democratic primary. And Derusseau and Thellman both hope their successors will keep county government focused on the people it serves.
That’s especially important during a time of political unrest such as the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Thellman said. She said that local governments should set a good example and show that they care about their constituents.
“It’s so basic, but I hope the commission will work especially hard to model good governing to help people have confidence, even if it’s just at the local level, to know their tax dollars are well spent and their needs are attended to,” said Thellman, who served on the commission for 12 years.
Solving constituents’ problems often requires commissioners to get acquainted with parts of the county they aren’t as familiar with, Derusseau said. The new commission consists solely of Lawrence residents, and Derusseau said she hoped the commissioners would travel around the county and see firsthand the issues that rural residents were experiencing.
“I just hope they remember it’s all about people,” she said. “You have to actually go see all of these areas to get a full understanding about what you are about to make a decision on.”
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Projects big and small
Thellman and Derusseau said they were proud of several big projects the county had undertaken over the past few years — including highly visible ones like new behavioral health initiatives and facilities, as well as subtler things like land use regulations that many county residents wouldn’t be aware of.
The biggest of the county’s behavioral health projects, a new campus in northern Lawrence for mental illness and substance abuse treatment, is under construction now. Two of the campus’ housing units were recently finished, and work is ongoing on the campus’ behavioral health crisis and recovery center.
One thing about the project that Thellman said was special was that it brought together many community organizations — major players like LMH Health and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, as well as smaller nonprofit organizations — to work toward a common goal. She said those organizations would continue to work together and with the county to serve the campus’ patients.
The county also provides funding for many organizations that do other kinds of social service work, and Derusseau said she was proud that the commission helped them get the funding they needed. Among the programs that stood out for her were those that help homeless individuals, such as Artists Helping the Homeless, a nonprofit that runs a respite house in Lawrence.
But the commissioners also noted some of the county’s behind-the-scenes work. From Thellman’s perspective, some of the commission’s most important projects were those that focused on sustainability and land preservation. Those projects include a set of new land use regulations; a new comprehensive land use plan that was developed alongside the City of Lawrence; and the establishment of the Heritage Conservation Council, which focuses on preserving important natural, cultural and historic sites in the county and oversees a grant program for those kinds of efforts.
Those land use and conservation projects serve one of the county’s key goals, Thellman said: to ensure that prime farmland and the county’s historic places are preserved for future generations.
“Those things are subtle, but terribly important to our future,” Thellman said.
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Another subtle thing the commission does is talking to constituents one on one. Derusseau said some of the best moments of her term were when she could sit down with residents and help them resolve their problems or give them a better understanding of how county government works.
“To me, those are some of my most rewarding (moments) over the last four years — being there to help when they needed the help,” she said.
Criminal justice and the jail
There were times during Thellman’s and Derusseau’s terms, however, when some constituents accused the commission of being at odds with the public. And one of the biggest flashpoints was a series of plans to expand the Douglas County Jail.
Overcrowding at the jail has been a perennial problem for the county. Over the past few years, the county made a couple of big pushes to build an addition to the facility. The first one was a proposed $44 million expansion of the jail that would have been funded with part of the proceeds from a countywide half-cent sales tax. But county voters defeated the sales tax measure in 2018 — 53% voted against the new sales tax, and 47% voted for it.
With the sales tax proposal shot down, county leaders then considered a plan to expand the jail without a new sales tax. The new plan was a scaled-back version of the previous one, with a cost of $29.6 million. County leaders said the plan was essential to provide enough space to safely house inmates who couldn’t be served with alternatives to incarceration. But some county residents disagreed, saying that the money would be better spent on more criminal justice reform programs and that residents should get to vote directly on the project again.
Eventually, in January 2020, the commission approved the scaled-down jail expansion plan. All three members — Thellman, Derusseau and fellow Commissioner Patrick Kelly — voted in favor of it.
But when the coronavirus pandemic emerged in the spring of 2020, the reality of the project changed. Among other things, the jail saw a dramatic decrease in bookings; the county anticipated that the pandemic would lead to a drop in tax revenue, which would make it more difficult to fund the expansion; and the commissioners asked criminal justice leaders to find new ways to reduce bookings so they could provide enough space to keep inmates safe from the virus. The commissioners asked to reconsider the jail expansion issue, and in September 2020, they voted to abandon the project.
Even if that vote had turned out differently, the project would still likely have been doomed, because all of the candidates remaining in the County Commission races at that point had specifically campaigned against the jail expansion.
Looking back, Thellman and Derusseau said that while the jail expansion issue was controversial, the county was doing work on criminal justice reform at the same time. The two leaders were part of the county’s effort to create new incarceration alternatives like the behavioral health court and the drug court, which were also intended to reduce the crowding at the jail.
“We made the headlines for the jail, and that upset an awful lot of people, but the work behind that was also criminal justice reform,” Thellman said. “I’ll miss the opportunity to continue that work as well.”
There were also some priorities that Thellman and Derusseau wished they could have addressed before their time in county office came to a close.
For Thellman, one of the biggest ones was the creation of a plan that would preserve open, undeveloped spaces in the county. She said she had begun working on that project, which would safeguard “uniquely valuable land” for all county residents to use, but it is currently unfinished. She said she envisioned that the plan might help the county combat climate change, as well.
“What we do with our land, soil, our forests, prairies and undeveloped areas really matters in our ability to fight climate change,” Thellman said. “When we don’t pay attention to that, then we are part of the problem of climate change, and not part of the solution.”
Derusseau said she wanted to help work on a few animal issues in the county, such as problems with vicious dogs — although she said the discussion should really focus on “irresponsible dog owners” rather than on the animals themselves. She said that she’d heard from rural residents whose livestock had been killed or maimed by dogs and that she hoped more discussions would occur on the topic in the future.
Derusseau also noted that several projects, including the behavioral health campus, were underway but not finished. But she said the ball was already rolling on those issues and that she was confident they would be in good hands with the new commission.
“I feel really good about where they are, and they are going to continue to be a work in progress,” she said. “They are in good shape and heading in the right direction.”
Even if they didn’t get everything accomplished that they would have liked, both Thellman and Derusseau said they were happy to have made a difference in the county through their work. Echoing what they both said during their final meeting on Jan. 6, Thellman told the Journal-World she was grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“It’s really a huge privilege and one of the greatest joys of my life,” Thellman said, thanking constituents and the county staff. “I couldn’t be prouder to be part of that organization.”
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