Michigan: Al Vanderberg, Ottawa County, County Administrator

Posted on January 26, 2015

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Time Out for Mentoring with Al Vanderberg

Fifty Nifty Takeaways

What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.

P.S:  Contribute to the Fifty Nifty project by sending those names in your lil’ black book to ELGL.

Our Take on Michigan

The mere mention of local government in Michigan generates discussion about the financial crisis in Detroit, and the impact on surrounding cities. (Pontiac was the latest city to land in the crosshairs of the New York Times.)

d4c113b13784797f38bc29ac00dc8de84fd9e6c31b80f093cde9be04d8670aadELGL has launched an effort to increase our presence in the state. Here’s some information on that effort: Pure Michigan: ELGL Launches in the Mitten StateThe Assistant: Victor Cardenas, Novi, MI, and 360 Review with Andrew Opalewski, City of Troy, MI.

With that understanding, the Fifty Nifty returns to interview Al Vanderberg, Ottawa County. Before we talk with Al, here’s a quicker primer on the Mitten State.

Michigan is the ninth most populous and 11th most extensive total area. Its capital is Lansing, and the largest city is Detroit. Michigan’s personal income tax is set to a flat rate of 4.25%. In addition, 22 cities impose income taxes; rates are set at 1% for residents and 0.5% for non-residents in all but four cities. Michigan’s state sales tax is 6%, though items such as food and medication are exempted from sales tax. Property taxes are assessed on the local level, but every property owner’s local assessment contributes to the statutory State Education Tax.

Here’s a look at some of the “interesting” laws enacted by other Michigan cities.

tumblr_m1k50dJzKI1rressco1_r1_500Clawson: There is a law that makes it legal for a farmer to sleep with his pigs, cows, horses, goats, and chickens.

Detroit: Putt-putt golf courses must close by 1:00 AM.

Grand Haven: No person shall throw an abandoned hoop skirt into any street or on any sidewalk, under penalty of a five- dollar fine for each offense.

Soo: Smoking while in bed is illegal.

Wayland: Anyone can keep their cow on Main Street downtown at a cost of 3 cents per day.

Background Check on Al

Al Vanderberg began his duties as Ottawa County Administrator in December 2003 which brought him back to his professional roots as he began his local government management career serving as an Administrative Intern in the Spring Lake Village Manager’s Office.

Prior to Ottawa County, Al served as Deputy County Administrator of Kent County, City Manager of South Haven, Assistant City Manager of Greenville, and Budget/Policy Analyst for Lenawee County. A native of Grand Haven and 1980 graduate of Grand Haven High School he graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Political Science, Michigan State University with a Master of Public Administration and also completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Al has been involved in numerous professional activities including authoring articles on local government management in state and national publications. Al is a member of the International City/County Management Association and currently serves as President of the Michigan Local Government Management Association, Vice-President of the Michigan Association of County Administrative Officials and Chair of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance.

Lightning Round


Best advice from your parents:  Never quit. Vanderbergs don’t quit.

In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party?

  • The Sousa Band
  • The Woody Herman Band
  • Green Day


Before I die I want to… Sail across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin and back with friends.

Three most influential books in your life:

  • The Holy Bible
  • The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk
  • Think Better by Tim Hurson

If you could FaceTime with five people, who would be on that list?

  • James Madisondownload (3)
  • Steve Jobs
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Gilbert V. Vanderburg (my great-grandfather)
  • Gen. George Patton.

Describe the inside of your car:  It is in significant need of a thorough, deep cleaning.

What’s the meaning of life?  Family, Country, God, Profession.  Give each the utmost you have each day and live every day to the fullest.

Q & A

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Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in Michigan:

  • Resilient – Our recession and job loss began years before the Great Recession and Michigan local governments adapted, survived and are now beginning to thrive once again.
  • Collaborative – Michigan governments are combining service provision at all levels and more than the usual suspects, many traditional administrative infrastructure services that were once considered “hands off” are now being shared at increasing rates.
  • Innovative – A renewed focus on innovation has led local governments to examine whether there are better ways to provide services and many have found new and more cost effective methods to improve services, many times at lesser expense.

We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government.  What was your dream job as a 12-year old?  What was your first local government job?  How did you end up in local government?

stranfordKOD.0I probably still wanted to be in the U.S. Army at age 12.  This was replaced by a plan to be a High School Band Director and I spent the first two years of college as a music major playing Lead Tenor Sax in the college jazz band.  I then thought I wanted to be an attorney and as I looked at the post under graduate future looming ahead I figured out that a poli-sci grad would not likely make it into the University of Michigan Law School so my plan was to get a masters degree and then apply back to U of M for Law School.

I ended up choosing Michigan State University for obtaining my MPA and as part of the application process I had to check three boxes of public administration careers that I might be interested in.  I randomly checked City Management not really having any idea what it was.  About a month later I received a call from the MSU MPA Advisor who relayed that there was was an internship opportunity in the Village of Spring Lake, MI, adjacent to my hometown Grand Haven with then  Village Manager Eric DeLong, an MSU MPA Alum.  I worked for Eric that summer, worked with attorney’s and thought their work pretty boring compared to what I was doing and fell in love with the profession at that time. I can say that I have known exactly what profession I want to be in since age 22 and have spent 30 great years doing this work.

Give us your top three career accomplishments: I hope that my top three career accomplishments lie ahead in the future.  I have been fortunate to have been part of high-performing teams throughout my career that have accomplished significant achievements but these are certainly some of my favorite accomplishments.

  • Greenville, MI Truck Route Finance.  The largest employer in the City of Greenville informed City leaders that they would leave town if the City could construct a new truck bypass route to connect industrial areas on opposite sides of the city and thus providing a direct link between the manufacturer and then present and future suppliers.  I took $300,000 of City cash and leveraged two state and one federal program together to fund the over $8 million improvement in what became known as the “house of cards” finance scheme.  It was successful and I saw construction of a portion of the west leg before leaving town for South Haven.  The project was completed and both State agencies changed their matching requirements thereafter.
  • 11111Creation of South Haven Area Emergency Services Authority.  The City of South Haven residents were subsidizing the ambulance portion of the Fire: Ambulance Department at a rate of $27.00 per capita while 3 township partners were subsidizing at a rate of $3 to $4.5 per capita.  Five years of negotiation produced a deal that folded all governments into one authority, gave shared power to townships through their seats on the authority board, and saved the City over 2 mills of property tax.
  • Managing through the Great Recession.  Ottawa County emerged from the Great Recession with a General Fund Operating Budget that was reduced by over $10 million.  We were able to manage through this economic crisis by reducing only 52 positions, 7 with bodies in them and made significant improvements to employee development, completed the 15 year building program including completion of the Ottawa County Courthouse in Grand Haven and the expansion of the Fillmore St. Administrative Complex in the heart of the Great Recession.  We also made significant improvement s to technology during this time.  We did it by creating very unique agreements between some of the 33 different departments, offices and courts and by overhauling benefits and other expenses.

We often learn from our mistakes.  Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from:

more-people-would-learn-from-their-mistake-if-they-werent-so-busy-denying-themSouth Haven grows from a year-round population of about 6,000 to a summer population of about 18,000.  There is a large mix of rental and resort housing with absentee owners/landlords sometimes from as far away as Kalamazoo, MI or Chicago, IL.  City leadership believed that a rental unit inspection and maintenance ordinance was necessary for many reasons.  The staff prep work on the ordinance was not scheduled correctly and it came before the City Council just after the November election.  The City Council (which had been supportive) decided to pitch the decision to the recently elected Council which would consider the issue in January.   One of the new Councilmembers was a realtor and his influence stopped the proposed ordinance dead in its tracks. Lesson learned:  timing is everything.

Another mistake involved my hiring of a new City department head in a critical area.  I had a great process, or so I thought, written exercise to narrow the pool, peer leader in same position from another government and community leader from a related type of work as members of the oral interview team.  The person I hired was great with their peer department heads and with those above them in authority but was an absolutely miserable boss for those under their authority.  This failure led me on a many year journey of improvement on how I select people and we now at Ottawa County use the Three Legged Stool Model for hiring and team formation that utilizes the three traditional sectors of the human brain in the process:  cognitive, affective and conative.  We also now use empathy testing as one of many factors in the hiring process.

Our experience has been that many of our friends, family, and neighbors are now well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”.  Has this been your experience?

Most of the people in my non-governmental life know that I have an important position in government but I haven’t heard any labels attached to what I do.  I have heard this of other friends but I haven’t experienced it.  Somehow though, when I was a small city manager, it seemed like everyone who saw me in the grocery store or in a restaurant knew that I had something to do with electric outages and billing, sewage backups in basements, potholes, etc.

How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?

Well, I have continually started and experimented with various forms of communication.  We serve many publics and these publics are of different ages and plug into various media venues.  A robust communication approach needs to target the massive growth in social media and be relevant on Facebook, Twitter and other social media while not abandoning traditional communication through newspapers, radio and television.  Outstanding interactive through a local government website is a must.  I currently do a weekly Digest that goes to Commissioner, department heads, all County employees, all local government leaders (mayors, managers, supervisors, clerks, etc.), and a Just For The Board communication that periodically goes to Commissioners.  Key staff join me in 24 brown bag lunches with employees throughout the year, three times each in 8 different County facility locations.  I host a cable television show and write a periodic blog.  We do much more.  Outstanding communication is the foundation to build trust and outstanding partnerships with all stakeholders.

Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government?

Yes, definitely, as a consideration along-side other potential careers that they are interested.  I mainly encourage them to find their passion and then make that their life work.  That way work will be more fun and less like “work.”

If we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression:

First you would only get chance if your cover letter and resume are error free.  I’m amazed at the number of candidates that apparently don’t have another set of eyes review their material before submission.   Have another set of eyes look at it before submitting it.  Seems old fashioned but the natural question that comes up is if that is the best you could do for yourself in presenting yourself for a major job for me, what kind of errors will I be experiencing if I hire you?

  • Be honest and transparent.  A good fit goes both ways, the candidate needs to be the best fit for the organization and the organization needs to be the best fit for the candidate.  Neither will benefit or prosper if the best fit is not achieved.
  • Be prepared to answer some off the wall questions.  “What is the role of humor in the organization” closely followed by “can you tell me a joke?”  Or how about “How many piano tuners are in the Chicago Phone Book?  Or, why is a manhole cover round?  I have picked these questions and many more over the years through friendships with corporate leaders, listening to creativity consultants, and reading Fermi questions (Google these they are great!).  The object isn’t to hear a joke or a right answer but to observe how someone handles the question.  Do they get frustrated, angry, tell an improper joke, or do they make assumptions and try to answer a question the best they can.


  • You need to have done research on Ottawa County and be able to give your vision for our organization and community.  We are looking for people of vision who see the big picture and the little picture and can relate to and explain both.

Mentoring is such an important part of local government.  Name three of your mentors:

Each of the six managers/administrators that I have worked for in my career served as mentors and I learned from them.  There were three who stand out because of how they mentored me and in some way helped prepare me for the next career move up.

Eric DeLong, then Village Manager of Spring Lake, MI (now Deputy City Manager of Grand Rapids, MI), hired me as an Administrative Intern, my first position in local government, and paid for me to become an ICMA Student Member (and of our state association).  He gave me challenging assignments and didn’t micro-manage me.

delabbioJerry Felix, then City Manager of Greenville, hired me as Assistant City Manager and helped developed the types of knowledge and skills necessary to excel at my next position, City Manager of South Haven, MI.

I then worked for Daryl Delabbio as Deputy County Administrator of Kent County, MI and he helped prepare me for working in large county organizations which really helped set me up for success as County Administrator of Ottawa County.

In 2018, local government will be… challenged by not having enough young people choose public service as a profession.  The numbers are grim.  Local government will also require managers/administrators to be far more adept in the leadership realm and finding adaptive solutions to problems instead of the traditional technicians who eschew leadership as being in the arena solely of elected official and solve problems primarily with technical solutions.  I believe local government management will still be a fantastic profession but we need to get ahead of some disturbing trends and thought patterns to maintain the adoption and strong reputation that professional management has nationally.

What question(s) should we have asked you?

What is the greatest mental shift that the local government management profession needs to make in the future?  Managers are hired for their left-brain thinking prowess and problem solving ability and then are sometimes criticized for not having the right leadership fit for the community they serve.  I think the profession, per the thinking of Daniel Pink, needs to move toward a balanced brain approach where we make sure our staff has a balance of left and right brain thinking.

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