By Kayleigh Rahn
DOUGLAS COUNTY – For more than 22 years, Circuit Clerk Julie Mills has been the first face greeting patrons entering her office on the second floor of the Douglas County Courthouse.
“I intentionally put myself at the front desk,” she said. “I’ve always liked the people, and that’s why I do the job.”
However in November 2020, at the close of her current term, Mills will retire.
“In some ways it makes me sad because this has been my life for a number of years, and retirement is not what I anticipated, because I’d planned to retire with my husband,” she said.
John Mills passed away on New Year’s Eve 2016 after a long battle with cancer.
“I was trying to work fulltime, it was a stressful time,” she said. “At that time, Mary (Ochs) was a godsend, because I didn’t have to worry about keeping things going in the office. I knew she could handle it.”
Now it’s been several months since Mills made a quiet decision to opt out of reelection.
“I’m not sure I’m willing to commit to another four-year term, and, of course, I feel you don’t go into a term feeling like you’re not going to finish it,” she said.
Mills started work in the Circuit Clerk’s office Oct. 15, 1985, 11 years before her first election. Helen Fortney hired Mills as the child support clerk.
“I did more with the support enforcement than we do now, because we are so short staffed we just can’t get to it,” she said. “At one time we had the highest support collections rating in the state, because few counties do the support enforcement that we do.”
After several years, Mills became the Chief Deputy, which allowed her to attend board meetings and learn both sides of the office–civil and criminal/traffic. Before Fortney retired, she asked Mills if she was ready to run for the office.
“At that time Bryson (her son) was little, and I just wasn’t prepared,” she said. “I still felt there was too much I needed to learn.”
In hindsight, Mills says she now realizes she was on track to eventually take the lead of the office throughout her first 11 years; however she says when she was hired the idea was the furthest thought from her mind.
She ran against opposition in her first primary, though, through an organized campaign, she took all 20 precincts and never encountered opposition again. She was first sworn into her new role Dec. 1, 1996.
Every day isn’t a good day at the office, some days are filled with bad news for community members who have broken the law. However, the good days are really good.
“We like the adoptions; adoptions are happy times, but a lot of the work is not everyone’s brightest moment,” Mills said. “All along we’ve provided a service, though half the people don’t like the service you are providing. When your name is on the door, it becomes different. You want to make sure the staff treats people right, be empathetic throughout their role.”
Mills says at least five individuals have shared interest in putting their names on the ballot in the 2020 primary.
“Ideally your circuit clerk is someone who has worked here so they have an idea of the work before they take office,” she said. “We don’t have anyone in the office that is willing to do that at this time, that’s why we have multiple people who are wanting to throw their hats in the ring.”
Beyond looking forward to a semi-retired lifestyle, Mills says she’s reasoned entering retirement because she has been disappointed in several directives coming from Springfield that affect the daily workings of their office in Douglas County.
She admitted to being behind in implementing digital services within the office, though to be honest, she has been reluctant to make several transitions–such as an e file system and taking electronic payments–with a purpose. She simply does not feel these moves are in the best interest of her office.
Looking ahead, Mills invites the potential candidates, if they haven’t already, to visit her office prior to the election to learn about the job.
“Find out as much as you can about the office before being elected,” she recommended. “Some (candidates) are in law enforcement, so they know some of the legal terms, though not so much the civil terms,” she said. “It would be hard without coming from the office.”
Though the newly elected circuit clerk will not come into office without systems of support. Mills noted a training and mentor network within the state that allows the circuit clerks to use each other as references.
“And hopefully they will use me as a resource,” she said. “I don’t know it all, but I’m willing to help where I can.”
When Mills started in the office 33 years ago, there were seven full-time deputies. Today the office employs five full-time deputies and one part time, though the caseload continues to grow.
“In some categories we may have fewer filings but more filed within those cases,” she said. “There’s not time to take time off. It’s hard to get everything done.”
Looking to stepping down from her role at the helm of the office, considering the workload, she hopes to help the office resolve a bit of that stress by working limited hours.
“I hope to work others’ vacations, if nothing else,” she said.
She’s also looking forward to spending more time as a resource for her church and the Arcola Rotary Club. Though more than volunteering, Mills is looking forward to being home to help with her grandchildren, ages 4 and 5, along with plans to travel.