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Nunda Township highway commissioners put politics aside to help flood victims

Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013 11:50 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2013 11:30 p.m. CDT
Caption
Newly elected Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance (left) sits with ousted commissioner Don Kopsell Thursday, May 2, 2013. The two political rivals put politics aside to help flood victims as heavy rains overflowed the Fox River last month.

NUNDA – The phone rang incessantly at the Nunda Township Highway Commissioner’s Office as rain pounded McHenry County last month.

The Fox River was pouring over onto residents’ properties. Homes were on the verge of destruction. The phone calls were as desperate as they were frequent.

That’s when 16-year outgoing Highway Commissioner Don Kopsell and newly elected Commissioner Mike Lesperance put politics aside and worked together to bring aid to residents in need.

The two worked side by side to orchestrate relief efforts and get supplies to people facing rising floodwaters, even though Lesperance doesn’t officially take office until May 20.

Just two months earlier, the men were involved in a hotly contested race where Lesperance ousted Kopsell by 175 votes and third candidate Rob Parrish by just four votes. During the race, Kopsell said neither candidate had the experience needed to lead, and Lesperance blasted Kopsell for nepotism and financial mismanagement.

But as residents called for help, the two worked together by organizing the delivery of more than 83,000 sandbags to hundreds of Nunda Township residents. Twenty trucks and 120 workers and volunteers covered 25 miles of roads, often delivering sandbags and other materials in less than an hour after receiving a call.

“I’ve never seen or heard of anybody offering the kind of transition I’ve been offered,” said Lesperance, who is working for free until his official start date. “Mr. Kopsell has opened the computer, the books, the files, the employees. I have full access to everything and can call on him for any question at any time of the day.” Kopsell, working in more of an advisory role, gave Lesperance his office and has been working out of the break room.

“Mr. Kopsell made it clear that we were going to take care of the people,” Lesperance said. “He stood back and let me sink or swim. He said, ‘Lets see if you can handle it or not.’ When he needed to step in when I was making mistakes, he did.”

“When I first ran for office, I was led through a bad experience during the transition I went through,” Kopsell said. “I said to myself then it would never happen to anyone else. Getting to know Mike right away was a big help.”

The two quickly got to know each other as the township worked from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. to fill sandbags. Once bitter campaign rivals, Kopsell and Lesperance now consider themselves friends and have a newfound perspective on the political process.

“The biggest thing I learned throughout the campaign is that when you hear a story, any story, before you act on it, you need to get the other side of the story,” Lesperance said. “Before the campaign, I didn’t bother to come to Mr. Kopsell and ask him, ‘This is what I heard, can you give me your side of the story?’ I falsely assumed things were true that weren’t.”

Kopsell credited the partnership with being able to better serve the community.

“I think we both did a great job, and our workers did an excellent job,” he said. “That’s why the response what right there.”

It’s still an uphill battle for many people in Nunda Township. Some homes are surrounded by water and many people are looking at months of cleanup.

Kopsell and Lesperance plan to keep delivering help to affected residents, and Kopsell plans to continue working with Lesperance after May 20 in a pro bono, advisory role, which is something neither would have imagined before the flood.

“I am honored Mr. Kopsell considers me his friend now,” Lesperance said. “Through the campaign, for us to be able to sit here today and say that we’re friends, I’m thoroughly satisfied with that. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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