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Retiring longtime state ombudsman’s leadership ‘won’t be easy to replace’

December 17, 2018

The people of Nebraska will lose an advocate Friday, a man who has served the state as ombudsman since 1981, only the second in Nebraska history.

Marshall Lux, 70, is retiring.

The Ombudsman’s Office, also known as the Office of Public Counsel, operates independently under the auspices of the Legislature, taking on the issues of people who have complaints about the actions of state agencies.

“I’m obviously very proud of all of the things that we’ve accomplished in this office,” he said.

It has matured in function and grown in staff and responsibilities, Lux said, adding local jail complaints to its list of topics of scrutiny, and two inspectors general, for child welfare and corrections. The office has also become a key part of the legislative oversight function, working with special investigative committees and reform efforts.

“I think it’s a big deal that the Legislature is gradually improving in that (oversight) area,” Lux said.

Lux has been described as confident, but never a showboat. Serious, straightforward. A man of intellect who believes in practical solutions. A person with a strong sense of humanity.

Senators have observed he knows when to sound the alarm and say something’s really wrong, and then distill and articulate the problems.

He’s a man who believes in government.

“My view on government is that it’s a necessary evil. People who don’t like government put the emphasis on evil. I put the emphasis on necessary,” he said.

Imperfect bureaucracies will always spawn problems, a reason why ombudsmen are needed.

“Another reason we are here is to help people who are not powerful confront and have a fair playing field with their conflicts with big bureaucracy,” he said.

Otherwise, the attitude that you can’t fight city hall will cause people to accept that they’ve been treated unfairly when they don’t have to accept that, he said.

Speaker Jim Scheer said during a recent legislative Executive Board meeting that Lux has served in an exemplary manner.

“It’s not a real easy position to have,” Scheer said. “Sometimes doing what’s right is not the most popular thing in the world to do. And he’s handled that with integrity and grace through the period of time that he’s served.”

Lux has been known in recent years to take issues head on, especially those concerning the Department of Correctional Services, and to present his analysis thoughtfully and thoroughly.

He drew the ire of Gov. Dave Heineman in 2014 when he said in a report that corrections officials were “grievously wrong” in failing to provide mental health services to Nikko Jenkins. The Omaha man left prison from solitary confinement — then killed four people within three weeks, after promising when imprisoned to kill people when he got out.

After the report came out, Heineman said, “Lux may want to be soft on crime and care more about the criminals than the victims and their families, but I don’t. Nikko Jenkins deserves the death penalty for what he did.”

The remark provoked then-vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee Steve Lathrop, who was recently elected to serve another term in the Legislature.

“That office is not there to ... give it political perspective. They are there to investigate,” he said. “And they have investigated a very serious, serious problem in the Department of Corrections. The fact that they issue a report that identifies those problems does not make that office political, nor soft on crime.”

In writing that report, and others he has written on the 2015 Tecumseh prison riot, for example, Lux said his intentions were to draw back the curtain on issues and let the facts speak for themselves.

He also understands the limits of such reports.

“Sadly,” he said in the Jenkins report, “I am well aware that there is nothing in this report for the families of the victims of Mr. Jenkins’ alleged crimes. There are no answers here that can give them comfort, or that can ease their pain, or that can explain in cool, rational terms why their loved ones were lost.”

After Lux leaves, Deputy Ombudsman and Lincoln City Councilman Carl Eskridge will serve as the acting ombudsman, by law. He has expressed his interest in the position, saying he will not seek another term on the council. Others can also apply for the position in the next two months. It will then be up to the Executive Board to nominate a successor to the full Legislature for approval.

Lux said he’d like voters and taxpayers to continue to see the value of the office, so it can stay the course of being more activist and involved.

He would not like to see it be subject to decisions made in the name of partisan politics.

“Frankly, I’m a registered Republican, just like Bob Mueller,” he said. “But it would a bad idea, in my opinion, if this office, or any other parts of the legislative divisions got politicized in a partisan sense.”

After he retires, he will rest for a time, spend time with family, travel and do some creative writing.

Then, he may get involved with community activities, such as ballot issue campaigns.

He’s not a politician himself, he said, and could never get involved with retail politics like people who run for city councils and legislatures do.

But those politicians have recognized the benefits of having Lux around.

Senators know they are not the experts when their constituents bring issues or problems to them, but they know where the experts are — the Ombudsman’s office, Sen. Bob Krist has said.

“His individual leadership style is going to be very difficult to replace.”

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