Meet Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun ’86
Campus News

Developing a healthy, safe and vibrant community where all families and neighbors can thrive drives Mayor Tom DeBaun ’86 to lead and serve his hometown, Shelbyville, Indiana. In the midst of his third mayoral term, DeBaun is proud of the city’s progress the last 11 years but recognizes there is still significant work to do.

“We’ve gone from a sleepy town that hoped something would change to a community that has taken some control of its destiny and is looking at growth in a more holistic manner,” DeBaun said.

Beyond the flourishing downtown revitalization and promising business developments, DeBaun is committed to examining the human infrastruc­ture in Shelbyville and Shelby County, to better understand how policies, systems and facilities affect the residents. Identifying the barriers to opportunities for education, job training, employment, mental health treatment, addiction recovery and stable housing is critical to furthering community progress, he explained.

“We recognize that change doesn’t occur in a vacuum and, therefore, every policy has intended and unintended consequences. The key is reacting in a timely manner,” DeBaun said.

It also takes a knowledgeable, experi­enced, collaborative team, and DeBaun has convened exactly that. Several passionate and engaged colleagues from across the government spectrum in Shelbyville are collaborating with DeBaun to confront social inequities, to expand opportunities and to build individual and community capacity for future progress. That the team members also happen to be Franklin College alumni is serendipity.

“The funny thing is I didn’t seek fellow FC grads; it’s just that they are the best fit for the challenge,” DeBaun said.

They include Tony Collier ’87, regional one stop manager for WorkOne Central Indiana, Michael Daniels ’86, behavioral health and justice equity director for the city of Shelbyville, Melissa Gharst ’87, program services director for Shelby County courts, and Kim (White) Koehl ’88, executive director for Shelby Senior Services.

The alumni are authorities in their fields and bring experience-based perspectives to discussions about policies, procedures and solutions. Their collective knowledge from working in criminal justice, vocational training, educational services, health care, addiction recovery, homelessness prevention and senior services enables a holistic approach to some of the most complex challenges impacting residents.

“We’re always trying to improve our understanding of cause and effect,” DeBaun said. The critical-thinking and problem-solving skills the team members bring to the table are a testament to their liberal arts education. “I have an inherent confidence in these individuals because we have a common experience in Franklin College,” said DeBaun, an Alumni Council member.

It was Daniels who initially approached DeBaun a few years ago to pitch the idea of adding a social justice and equity component to Shelbyville’s government structure. At that time, Daniels was working for a county in metropolitan Ohio. His social justice and policy position involved coordination with police officers, the sheriff’s office, jails, first responders, judges, prosecuting attorneys and public defenders. One of their most effective strategies was connecting individuals to life-enhancing opportunities so they would be less likely to resort to criminal activity and be arrested.

During their first meeting, Daniels illustrated for DeBaun how preventing one individual’s arrest could, in turn, prevent a cascade of negative impli­cations on that person’s significant other, children and other relatives. Daniels had the data to back his claim, and DeBaun was receptive to continuing talks about how Shelbyville could benefit from a similar model of collaboration across departments. Many more discussions followed over the next couple of years until timing and opportunity aligned to enable DeBaun to extend a job offer. Daniels was eager to return to Shelbyville, where he was born and raised.

Since last fall, Daniels has been deeply engaged. Though Shelby County is less populated and rural than where he previously worked, the challenges are similar, he said. So is his boots-on-the-ground approach.

“As the primary liaison between Mayor DeBaun’s office and the Shelbyville neighborhoods who have historically been overlooked or whose opinions have not been directly solicited, I’m responsible for outreach, and on a much broader level for policy changes,” Daniels said.

Daniels’ position is distinct because he is the first ever to hold it, and because the objective is highly focused.

“Mayor DeBaun had the foresight and chutzpah to create a job where it’s my only job to go in every day, all day, and follow through on all these things that make a difference to individuals and families. These things have always been important but were only a fraction of other people’s various job responsibilities in the past. Now, they can get constant attention,” Daniels said.

As part of his work, Daniels seeks to bridge the gap of understanding between public perception of “how things should be” and how an indi­vidual’s values, needs, desires and responses to trauma all play roles in their wellbeing, and their neighbor­hood’s wellbeing. Strong listening skills and empathy are crucial, he said.

Based on what he learns from talking with individuals, Daniels then works through a checklist of questions. “First, what are the resources we have in place, or more importantly what are the resources we need in place to help the individual get to point A, so then they can get to point B? And how do we put systems in place to undergird and sustain their success?”

When Daniels does not know the answer or needs additional infor­mation to make a better-informed decision, he can count on his colleagues to help.

“Melissa Gharst, as a probation officer and the coordinator of a very effective recidivism prevention program within the jail, is an incredible resource. She sees what works, and what doesn’t,” Daniels said. “Likewise, Tony Collier is tremendously helpful. We recently worked together on coordinating a job fair specifically for individuals who were formerly incarcerated or are currently working through addiction recovery. Through Tony and his team’s efforts, we had every major employer in the county participate. And Kim Koehl is very helpful in addressing the variety of challenges affecting the elderly population, whether it’s a lack of transportation, a mental health issue or housing concern.”

By extension of his work for the Mayor’s Office, Daniels also collabo­rates with Stephen Black ’99, director of behavioral health/social determi­nants of health for Major Hospital in Shelbyville, and Emily Larrison ’19, community advocate navigator for the Shelbyville Fire Department.

Daniels said, “Stephen’s background in veteran affairs and mental health makes him a critical partner in the community, and he has become one of my biggest allies in the effort to remove barriers to treating mental illness. Then, there’s Emily, raising awareness throughout the community about all kinds of resources to help people meet basic needs like clothing and hygiene, as well as helping mitigate fire department runs to non-emergencies.”

For example, the fire department’s call records can help pinpoint what is called “911 dependency.” Someone may call for help because there are underlying circumstances such as a mental health issue that prompts them to pick up the phone. Reducing the instances of such non-emergency calls enables the department to redirect its resources in a timely manner where they are needed most.

“The way that it works is if firefighters or medics get called out and notice any kind of social need at a home, then they can, with the person’s consent, share the contact info with me. I’ll follow up, usually by phone, but occasionally with a home visit to help connect the person with the appropriate community resource. If the person receives help, then they may not need to call the fire department so often in the future,” Larrison said.

As one example of the strategy’s effectiveness, Larrison shared that an individual who was struggling with substance abuse and calling the fire department excessively opted to seek treatment for the first time in 30 years, after she received some direct outreach. However, not everyone offered help wants it, and that also is important to document, Larrison said. Tracking the information over the long term can help reveal trends and patterns, and shed light on neighbor­hood challenges. She is in the process of conducting a gap analysis on the community. “It involves taking all the data collected over the last couple of years to see which resources aren’t as available as we think, and what we’re doing really well,” Larrison said.

Besides connecting individuals with resource organizations, Larrison is connecting the organizations to each other. “Sometimes, they’re doing sim­ilar work, and they don’t know about each other. When they connect, they can potentially enhance each other’s resources and impact,” she said.

DeBaun recognizes the success of some efforts is not measurable, but said the cost of doing nothing is clear.

“When I took office in 2012 and began working with colleagues to establish a path forward, we reached out to Ball State University and the Indiana University Public Policy Institute to help us look at demographics. We knew we needed ways to attract more young families and new talent to Shelbyville, to backfill those leaving. In reviewing the findings, we learned we needed educational programming to help with kindergarten readiness, job readiness and technical employee training. The paths to help people improve their lot in life through educational programming didn’t exist in our community, and the link between the lack of opportunities and the cycles of poverty were evident,” DeBaun said.

The demographic data helped lead to partnerships with Indiana colleges and universities who are assisting the city in enhancing educational opportunities for citizens of every age group. As the result of some programming, Shelbyville’s rate of postsecondary completion among citizens increased by 9% in six years, DeBaun indicated.

“I truly believe educational programs are the real chances to break the generational impacts of poverty and other disadvantaged populations,” DeBaun said. Educational pro­gramming coupled with the efforts overseen by Black, Daniels, Collier, Gharst, Koehl and Larrison touch every facet of the community.

“These efforts can impact the lives of people who otherwise may be out of alternatives,” DeBaun said. He emphasized that careful planning and budgeting for the short- and long-term future guide these efforts, as they do every project and program over­seen by the Shelbyville government.

Daniels added, “I’m really proud of our team and this community for not politicking this holistic approach, and for taking an everybody come to the table and let’s solve the problem attitude. That my little hometown is being led by people from my liberal arts college who are getting it right also makes me very proud.”

One thing is clear; the collaborative work across the government spectrum is challenging and complicated. It also is important for the greater good. 

By Amy (Kean) VerSteeg ’96, Editor, Franklin College Magazine

POSTED Jul 11, 2022