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Cindy Lange-Kubick: 'I'm so sorry I'm leaving you alone with all these kids …'

Only a few weeks of quiet remain in the old house.

The house with old-fashioned wallpaper on the inside and old-fashioned bushes around its border.

The house where Linda Wetzler grew up, the oldest of four, a mother hen wanting to be a foster mom someday.

The 65-year-old welcomes me into the living room Friday morning. Freckles, the spotted puppy, sleeps in his basket and all the kids are in school — waiting for May 24 and summer.

Linda spent the day before cleaning out Jim’s desk and going through his wallet, crying in the quiet.

She figures she’ll cry today, too.

Linda and Jim got hitched in 2010 in Vegas. The couple who liked fishing and thrifting and fun had both been married before and had grown daughters and grandchildren. Linda had spent a lifetime running a day care and taking in foster kids — more than 100 in all those years — and when she and Jim ended up with five foster kids who needed a temporary place to land, they welcomed them.

And then they adopted them in 2015, and became a family of seven on Aylesworth Avenue. Joey and Lizzy, Jake and Jessie and Josh.

FRANCIS GARDLER, Journal Star file photo 

The Journal Star photographed Jim and Linda Wetzler in 2015 as they prepared to adopt five siblings (clockwise from left): Jessie, Jake, Joey, Lizzy and Josh.

Five lucky kids with a stay-at-home mom and a StarTran supervisor dad they called Jimbo.

Jim died on March 17 from bladder cancer that had metastasized.

A year earlier, he’d been fixing up a room for the boys in a cabin he and Linda owned in Cedar Creek. He had chills and he didn’t have an appetite for Linda’s homemade chicken noodle soup.

He confessed he’d been seeing blood in his urine for the past six months.

“And he didn’t say anything to his wife,” says Linda, a short, dark-haired woman in tennis shoes, Jim’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck.

She’s sitting in Jim’s recliner, telling his story. All the rounds of chemo and the hope that turned to despair.

She remembers the initial diagnosis. “We both sat in the parking lot and cried and cried.”

She remembers this room, a circle of young faces staring up at her after each round of failed treatment.

She remembers Jim in this chair, the day he decided to stop the drugs and start hospice.

“He was crying and he said, 'I’m so sorry, I’m leaving you alone with all these kids ...’”

Linda shakes her head. She talks about the suffering, how the cancer in his lungs made him cough until he gagged, cough until he vomited. How she watched the disease steal him slowly, day after day.

They made space for a hospital bed in the kids’ playroom. Nurses came to keep Jim comfortable. Linda slept nearby. Toward the end, she brought the children in one at a time. She put their hand on his and hers on top. She told them Jim could feel the love traveling through their hands to his heart and back into them, back into their own hearts.

The kids are all handling Jim’s death in their own way, Linda says. Lizzy wears Jimbo’s baseball caps. Little Josh wrote a story about him for school: “My most memorable moment with my most unforgettable person.”

They’ll all go to a camp for grieving kids later this year.

Linda doesn’t look too far ahead, but sometimes she looks up: I need a little help here, Jimbo!

She’s been a single mom before. When her first marriage ended. After her three girls grew up and she kept taking in foster kids.

“So I know I can do it.”

But she’s missing her best friend. The mornings after they'd gotten everyone off to school, the two of them drinking coffee and talking about the day ahead. At night after the kids were all in bed, sitting in these recliners, watching TV, looking back at the day.

They were a team, teaching their kids to be respectful and to follow the rules, finish their chores before having fun. They spent weekends at the cabin, and every Feb. 13, they celebrated the day five siblings had first landed in their living room.

After the doctor told Jim his cancer was terminal, he made sure Linda knew what all the keys on his jangling ring were for. He showed her how to run the snow blower, explained how to turn on the water in the cabin in the spring, wrote down passwords for all their accounts.

“Except he forgot to tell me the passwords for the kids’ Kindles.”

She laughs about that.

Linda believes in God. And that there is a higher plan that she doesn’t yet understand.

“I trust that.”

On the day Jim had told her he was sorry for leaving her with five kids to finish raising alone, she had an answer.

You stop right there, Linda told him.

“Would I want to live in this big house alone? I’m thankful I have these kids, they are a blessing to me, even on the hardest days.”

She sits in her husband’s chair, missing him.

A mother waiting for school to get out for the day — for the summer — waiting for this house to fill up with life.

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JPA plans ditched as focus for funding school safety initiative shifts to interlocal agreement

Lincoln City Council members will on Monday consider an interlocal agreement between the public schools and the city that would address school security issues.

The city council and Lincoln Board of Education have agreed to look at a revised interlocal agreement, instead of the initially proposed joint public agency, to administer and fund what's being called the Safe and Successful Kids initiative.

The council will discuss and may vote on the interlocal agreement at its Monday meeting, according to Councilwoman Leirion Gaylor Baird, who worked with Councilman Roy Christensen and school board member Lanny Boswell on what is being called a compromise.

“I want to thank our community for sharing their thoughts and priorities with the School Board and City Council,” Boswell said in a news release issued Sunday. “I am proud to live in a city that values safe and successful kids and to work with leaders who ensured those values and priorities are reflected in the interlocal agreement. This process was a great start to continued cooperation between the City and the School District, in service to our community’s children.”

The school board will vote on the measure later this month.

The interlocal agreement includes many of the same provisions as those presented in plans for a joint public agency, including support for after-school programs, pay for more mental health services in schools and additional middle school resource officers, but doesn't bring with it the specific taxing authority granted a JPA.

Mayor Chris Beutler and Superintendent Steve Joel originally proposed creating the joint public agency, a quasi governmental unit that would oversee the Safe and Successful Kids program and would have the authority to levy a property tax of 1 cent per $100 in valuation.

Though a majority of the school board and the city council appear to favor the JPA as proposed, public opposition has mounted to creating a new taxing authority. Many opponents to a JPA said they could support the schools and city working jointly through an interlocal agreement.

“I want to thank the Mayor for his leadership in proposing the Safe and Successful Kids Initiative,” Gaylor Baird said in the release. “The City Council and School Board all agreed with the goals he set. As different ideas about how to get this done emerged, we all listened and compromised. A lot of people listening and being thoughtful about what’s best for our community makes for good government. I’m pleased that, together with our non-profit partners, LPS and City leaders are strengthening our commitment to improve the lives of our City’s children.”

As originally drafted the interlocal agreement called for the city and the school district to each levy up to a half-cent on the property tax.

The first draft of the interlocal agreement also called for the program to be operated by two administrators, one from the schools and one from the city.

The new draft eliminates the half-cent tax levy by the city and school district and instead requires the city and school district to each contribute $1.05 million in the first year, with an escalator clause built into future budgets.

The interlocal agreement under consideration also replaces the two administrators with a six-member governing group, identical to the governing group set out in JPA plans.

That group would include the mayor, two council members and three school board members. Any decision would require the support of at least two school board members and two city representatives, so neither group could rule on its own.

The interlocal agreement also establishes a nonprofit group, representing the nonprofit agencies that now run most of the community learning center after-school programs.

“Community Learning Centers impact the lives of children, improving test scores and creating new opportunities for learning and success,” Beutler said. “We have worked for years to find a solution that ensures their future, and the interlocal agreement is a giant step forward. Mental health services, threat assessment and School Resource Officers will help us better protect our children and our community. It is a comprehensive approach to safety and learning that will make a difference to children across the City for years to come.”


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State officials say Nebraska at forefront of election security

Weeks before the 2016 election, a suspicious set of digital fingerprints was discovered probing a network maintained by Election Systems & Software, the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the United States.

Nebraska was passed over by Russian hackers in their attempts to meddle in the U.S. presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed in September, but Omaha-based ES&S was not.

By early October 2016, the third-party election systems vendor operating voting systems in 18 states had received a request from the Omaha office of the FBI to review network logs for any suspicious IP addresses attempting to gain access to its system.

“We worked with the FBI to review logs and found no unauthorized entities were able to get through our firewalls,” said Kathy Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs for ES&S. “There was no impact on our network.”

Homeland Security later concluded that a small percentage of the IP addresses identified as originating from Russian state actors were scanning the ES&S’ systems, but there was no evidence of a compromise.

Nor was there any impact on the vote-tabulation systems, which operate independently of the election management systems and are not connected to the internet, Rogers said. Homeland Security said no votes were altered in the 2016 elections.

The incident has renewed focus on election security in Nebraska and elsewhere, however, as the U.S. intelligence community has warned further attempts to sow chaos may be made in future elections.

As other states came under attack in the summer of 2016, Secretary of State John Gale and other state election officers took part in a conference call in which Homeland Security told them to be on the lookout for a cyberattack and offered states help shoring up their election systems.

GordonWinters / Courtesy photo 


Gale said he initially shared the skepticism of other secretaries questioning the federal government's offer to get involved in the elections, which under the U.S. Constitution are run by the states.

"We've always had this decentralized system and a sense among the 50 secretaries of states that decentralization is one of the greatest securities in national elections," Gale said.

But he was also among the earliest to accept help from Homeland Security. Amid a slumping state economy, Gov. Pete Ricketts had asked state agencies to exercise fiscal restraint, leaving a request for $160,000 in new election security hardware unfunded by the Legislature.

“In terms of funding security measures, we certainly did not have funding in our budget to go out and hire a third-party cybersecurity expert to come in and provide us with some level of enhanced security,” Gale said.

Homeland Security agreed to conduct a risk assessment of Nebraska's election systems, but warned the review might not occur until after the general election that year. So Gale turned to Nebraska’s Office of the Chief Information Officer following the August conference call.

That office conducted a medley of internal and external scans to measure the state's election security, Gale said. Internally, the agency scoured email accounts, digital files maintained by the Secretary of State's office as well as shared files between the state and county election officials.

As part of their contracts with the state, ES&S and the other third-party vendors — Nebraska Interactive, which manages many of the state's websites, including the secretary of state's; and BPro Inc., which compiles unofficial vote counts live on election night — also agreed to a scan by the CIO's office.

Beyond 2016

Nebraska will replicate its 2016 approach in the 2018 midterms, Gale said — with some extra help.

Gale said as part of the ongoing risk assessment, two state officials have been designated to receive immediate notification should Homeland Security detect a cyberattack. The Secretary of State's office declined to identify which officials have been designated to receive the notifications, but did say one has received final security clearance, while the second is awaiting final approval.

A Homeland Security representative has also been assigned to the state and is responsible for coordinating security efforts between the federal government, the Nebraska CIO's office and private vendors, Gale said.

Slow to mobilize its promise to offer risk assessments in the 2016 election cycle, Homeland Security has completed nine ahead of the 2018 election cycle, Nebraska included. A total of 17 states have requested the agency's help, according to the Associated Press.

Matt Hale, an assistant professor of cybersecurity at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the state's efforts to coordinate tests between multiple agencies and vendors "should engender a measure of confidence" among Nebraskans.

"It's really important to have a proper risk assessment, knowing what kinds of threats you're facing and knowing whether or not the tests you're conducting are covering those types of threats," he said.

The experiences of 21 states and companies like ES&S targeted by Russian state actors in 2016 should inform some of those security tests moving forward, the former researcher at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research added, at least in part.

In addition to the internal and external scanning, Nebraska and the vendors it uses should have a more complete understanding of how systems are used and by whom and from where. Deviations from normal patterns of behavior, or breaks in routine, would signal something out of place, Hale said.

But Hale also warned of the "zero day" vulnerabilities, the weaknesses not yet discovered.

"You don't know what you don't know," he said.

Further security measures

State officials and election vendors said Nebraskans can be assured their voter registration will be kept secure and their votes accurately counted.

Because Nebraska's elections are conducted on a county-by-county basis using paper ballots, the decentralization and paper trail add two more layers of security, Gale said.

The M100 ballot counters built to federal voting system standards by ES&S and used in most counties in Nebraska are not connected to the internet and are not capable of being tampered with remotely.

"Because voting systems are designated as part of our nation's critical infrastructure, we also partner with the Department of Homeland Security to further security measures and to ensure the latest methods are in place for continuing to provide auditable elections for Nebraskans," Rogers explained.

On election night, as results are updated on a state website designed and operated by BPro, the counties maintain the ballots for 22 months to certify the elections.

BPro's site reports an unofficial total down to the precinct level on election night, according to George Munro, the South Dakota company's government outreach director. The information is securely transmitted to the site by county election officials based on the vote tally.

"Once they update it, those officials can check to see if the system has processed it correctly," Munro said. "There are a number of measures built in to make sure a human is still approving it before it goes live."

Gale said ultimately, Nebraska might escape the attention of Russia and other state actors because of the state's political identity: solidly red.

"We're not a swing state," he said. "We do have a congressional district that is a swing district, so one never knows if that is going to become a target, but by and large, we're a pretty predictable state and we're kind of small.

"We think we're protected by that."

This story was updated May 15, 2018 to correct how long counties must maintain ballots following an election. Counties hold onto ballots for 22 months, not 22 days.