Al Vanderberg is leaving his role as Ottawa County administrator, which he has held since 2003, after recently accepting a position as Kent County administrator/controller. Vanderberg starts his new job on Aug. 30 and replaces Wayman Britt, who announced his retirement last year. With the move, Vanderberg will oversee operations in a county with more than twice the population of Ottawa County. Vanderberg has spent his career in local government in various roles around the state. He is Ottawa County’s longest-serving administrator and helped lead multiple building projects, created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office, and supported the passage of a 10-year millage in 2016 to fund mental health services. Vanderberg recently spoke with MiBiz about taking the leadership position in Kent County.
Why did you decide to take on this new role in Kent County?
The main attraction was there are a lot of things they want to accomplish, and they have the goal of being the No. 1 county in the state. I live two miles from Kent County right now, so we don’t have to move — the right things came together for my family and career at the same time.
I didn’t necessarily see this in my future, but I have previously worked for Kent County for almost five years as the deputy county administrator. From a number of contacts from the search firm the county was using, I became aware that they were looking for a change agent in this role. It’s a different approach — they’re not looking for a maintenance manager, but a leader in organizational improvement, cultural improvement and change. Not from a standpoint of being currently all messed up, but cultures either move forward or they stay the same.
What did you learn leading Ottawa County through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We learned that it’s possible to quickly mobilize people working from home. Obviously, in county government with health and mental health roles, not everyone could work from home. But we had a substantial number of county employees who did. We were surprised with how many found more productivity by working from home.
Another thing that we learned was just the difficulty in communication during the pandemic in the social media age. There are probably thousands of websites to back any opinion someone has with a self-proclaimed expert out there. For some people, it has eroded their faith in our institutions. What we try to do is communicate and keep communicating what we know to be the truth.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments while leading Ottawa County?
Probably over the first half of my time at Ottawa County we did a lot of building projects. Then we also worked hard to completely redo our health benefit program and saved more than $5 million. Our employees are healthier and pay less, and we kept a solid benefit plan in place. Along the way, Ottawa County had the first mental health millage in the state, which exceeded our expectations when voters approved it the way they did.
Our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office also grew out of our county’s vision of wanting to be a place where you belong. We had heard from employers that if Ottawa County didn’t become more welcoming, that we might not share in future prosperity the way we did in the past. Diversity, equity and inclusion is a top priority in Kent County as well, as it has been in Ottawa County.
Those are more unique things we’ve done that have produced some great results. We have tried to really strive for using both best and next practices.
What are some projects or goals you are hoping to complete as you lead Kent County?
West Michigan in general is known for the partnerships we have. We’ve improved some, but I’m truly looking at how to grow that.
Ottawa County has been hard at work on our Grand River Greenway trail (connectivity) project from Lake Michigan to (the western border of Kent County). Then you have Grand Rapids doing the river restoration project and looking at building an amphitheater. Shouldn’t there be some effort to tie that all together? There are just some ways we can collaborate that will make us stronger, and those are some of the things we need to be looking at.
Part of any new administrator’s plan has to be to listen. Even though Ottawa County is next door, I won’t pretend to know all the complexities and subtleties of Kent County. I will lead a priority-setting session to look at strategic planning on a number of things to jump into and resolve. I will be making sure I get a firm grip on what the needs are.