Darlene Kloeppel is the right person to head up the first County Executive position, and has the experience and knowledge to do the job the right way.
At least, that is what she tells me over coffee at Avionics in Midtown, and listening to her speak about her history, I believe her.
Her path to the office is a daunting one. Her opponent is current County Clerk, Gordy Hulten, who is very popular countywide, and also, who has never lost an election. And while the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce and local Farm Bureau designed the position and got it on to the ballot, most anyone who pays attention to local politics knows that Hulten was very much “in favor” of its creation, and in some ways, helped to push it forward.
In other words, Hulten designed this job for himself to take on, and any sort of opposition or challenge to that was always going to be met with a small mountain to climb. Hulten remains a compelling figure, as far as I am concerned. His unwillingness to denounce the Trump-era GOP is disheartening, but it’s hard to deny his sincerity about his reasons why he wants to stay focused on what he can control here in Champaign County. Of course, he believes he is the right person for the job, and in a lot of ways, doesn’t think anyone is better suited for it.
But Kloeppel doesn’t care. She believes in the people of Champaign County, too, and she knows that they deserve an Executive who listens to the needs of the people, and who isn’t aligned with the sort of dangerous rhetoric coming from the mouths of the GOP statewide and above. The consequences are dire.
In an election year like 2018, even against a tough opponent like Gordy Hulten, it seems possible for her to win. The “Blue Wave” is what she’s banking on to deliver that victory, but she wants it to be about more than just people voting the party line. She wants people to understand that her experience as regional planner and a healthcare advocate puts her in a unique position to execute at a high level in this particular position.
Her resume is astonishing:
She holds a B.S. in Social Work, Sociology, and Psychology from Morningside College, in Iowa; a Masters in Social Work from University of Iowa; a Masters in Architecture and City Planning from Georgia Tech. She was a clinical social worker in hospice care for ten years in Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia; a planning consultant to prison and rehabilitation facilities South Carolina, Michigan, and Puerto Rico; an outreach coordinator at Provena Medical Center in Urbana, and finally, she spent 17 years as Community Service Director at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.
In the end, the Champaign County Executive position is essentially what she was doing for the past two decades, only this time, she would be finding ways to raise money and consider spending on a much larger scale. Her success in that position has paved the way to a new challenge, and it’s one she’s ready to take on.
We spoke at length recently, and here’s what impressed me the most: her attention to the community is fine tuned, and despite the challenge ahead next Tuesday, she sees her chances as much better than most people, even myself, believe.
Smile Politely: Obviously, this is a brand new position for Champaign County. It was proposed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Champaign County Farm Bureau. Do you feel like it was a necessary step for the county, and did you vote for its passage in 2016?
Darlene Kloeppel: The County Executive form of government is new here, but is fairly common in other states and parallels the traditional 3 branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) we have in state and federal government. I voted for the office in 2016, but I also voted for a countywide elected county board chair in the second 2016 referendum. It was unclear to me why both options were on the ballot at the same time, but I was in favor of voters electing their leader for the county.
The county board has accomplished very little in the last few years. I do think some change was needed to shake up the way decisions are being made, however an anaylsis wasn’t done by the board to determine whether this form of government would be the best way to solve that problem before it was placed on the referendum (something I hope to change as County Executive). The impetus to change the form of government was a political strategy to control decisions made by the board (the Executive will be able to break ties and veto board decisions), rather than a practical strategy to be more effective.
SP: Upon election, what’s the first 100 days look like for you? What would be your top priority?
Kloeppel: The first task as the new [executive] of the county board meetings is the County Board organizational meeting in December, which establishes the rules under which the board will operate with each other and the new Executive. I will make a few county appointments to fill vacancies. Initial meetings with my staff and seeking a deputy for my office will be important to organizing internal work for the office going forward.
My top priority is to develop a six-year strategic plan with the other officials and board members that will consolidate the current annual operations goals, the facilities conditions list, the IT road map and five-year revenue projections into a coordinated long-term vision upon which to base annual work plans with measurable milestones and goals for the future.
My schedule will include regular town hall meetings throughout the county to continue conversation with the public and meetings with officials from other units of local and state government and community leaders to begin to build conversations for partnerships that will help the county reach its goals.
I expect to be pretty busy.
SP: You have a race against a local political giant in a lot of ways. Have you spent much time with Gordy Hulten? And what do you think makes his candidacy such a compelling one when he runs?
Kloeppel: I have a great campaign team and from all indications have risen from a dark horse candidate to a serious contender in this race. Some would say that not being a career politician is to my advantage given the public’s dissatisfaction with the political disfunction of many of our current governing bodies at all levels. Most county residents are more interested in what will happen after the election on county issues that affect them than the election process itself, which is a point definitely to my advantage as I have a pretty compelling list of accomplishments in economic development, community services and public administration to bring to the table.
SP: How do you feel the County Board handled the sale of the Nursing Home? Do you feel like that is an essential service that the County should be responsible for, or were you in favor of the sale?
Kloeppel: Champaign County, as with many in the country, for over 75 years provided a great service for our seniors by offering county nursing home services that assured no one would be turned away regardless of ability to pay. With the advent of Medicaid, this dynamic changed, and many counties divested of their nursing homes. Champaign County did not, but has not had the flexibility nor the expertise to keep up with increasingly complex operations and billing procedures that are now required by the rapidly changing health care industry. Since the sharply divided board has spent the last 10 years arguing with no workable plan for the nursing home’s financial future, quality of care had declined and full staffing had become an issue, I supported its sale. This was a difficult and drawn out decision for county board members, but good, if not congenial, effort was made to protect current residents and staff and to assure there will be a resource for future low-income seniors in our community. As County Executive, I will certainly monitor closely these conditions of the sale.
I was disappointed that in the entire discussion of whether or not to keep a service, the board did not even raise the question: “What do our seniors need today and how can the county best support those needs?” Asking this question might have re-focused the board on getting behind problem-solving with less polarization, and I plan to ask a lot of these types of questions as County Executive.
SP: What do you think the biggest challenge is facing the County right now? What can you do as County Executive to solve it?
Kloeppel: As the person responsible for preparing the county’s budget, the looming issue is continuing to provide the quality of county services that residents deserve and expect in the face of almost overwhelming financial and facility challenges. In addition to the recent nursing home deficits, the state is now skimming a percentage of the county’s sales taxes to help its own deficit. Federal and state continue to push costs down to local government by providing a smaller share of funding for mandated services, such as probation. Tax caps are not keeping up with rising costs doing business. County facilities are deteriorating without adequate maintenance. Staff positions have been not filled or have been cut in the last few years. We are way behind in our use of technology to improve internal operations, access and convenience for the public. I plan to tie all of these elements (revenue, facilities, operations, IT) together into a single six-year strategic plan upon which we can base our annual budget decisions. Positioning the county for a rosy future will take creativity and flexibility that generally runs counter to the lengthy deliberation of government structure and will be the highest priority of my administration. We need to be thinking not about doing more for less, but doing things differently altogether.