What Ottawa County will miss about Al Vanderberg’s leadership

Al Vanderberg wrapped up his tenure as Ottawa County Administrator in August, we are taking stock of the many improvements he brought to the county during his 18 years at the helm. We reached out to Lakeshore leaders for their insights in putting together this list, which is far from exhaustive. But there were some themes in the answers we heard. Vanderberg built a reputation for being collaborative, inclusive, and innovative.

“To say Al has been a rock star for Ottawa County would be an understatement. He has done so much for our community,” says Patrick Moran, president of Ottawa & Allegan County United Way.

“Under his leadership, we got a mental health millage, saw amazing growth in the volume and quality of our parks system, seed funding initiatives, such as Ottawa Food and the Community Health Needs assessment. Not to mention the excellent COVID Response from his health department. Behind the scenes, Al was also a master at group facilitation and organizational management. He will be missed, Kent’s gain is Ottawa’s loss,” Moran says. 

While Vanderberg is leaving the county to take the County Administrator post in neighboring Kent County, many are hopeful his new role will benefit Ottawa County as well. As the county begins the search process for Vanderberg’s successor, Ottawa County Deputy Administrator John Shay will fill in during the interim. 

During much of Vanderberg’s tenure, Ottawa County had record growth. In fact, the county is the fastest-growing Michigan county with the population increasing by more than 12% to nearly 300,000, from 2010 to 2020, according to recently released U.S. census results. 

Here are some of the good things he brought to the county we are going to miss:

A focus on collaboration. Ottawa County has been instrumental in important community projects, such as the Community Assessment, Community Health Improvement projects, housing initiatives, food initiatives, the Adopt a Park program, Housing Next, Ottawa Thrive, Ottawa County Spoke and United Way’s Day of Caring.  

“I believe Al enhanced collaboration at the county level. Al was very open to offering the services of the county to local governments if it made sense. He did not push the services, but he certainly was willing to explore collaborative opportunities,” says Tim R. Klunder, Zeeland city manager.

Keith Van Beek, current Holland City manager and former deputy county administrator, echoes that praise. “Most people ‘in the know’ would be able to recall the poor overall interaction and relationships when Al began at Ottawa County. Through his leadership that has changed dramatically and there are many initiatives that have emerged that help the larger community and all residents because of those improved relationships.”

Customer Service. Vanderberg valued a responsive government. All county employees took part in the Disney Way customer service training. Customer Service Awards were created to spotlight outstanding customer service. When the pandemic struck, Ottawa County staff went above and beyond the call of duty in keeping the community, safe, informed, and mobilized to meet the evolving needs created by the pandemic, noted the Greater Ottawa County United Way gave Ottawa County. In May, the nonprofit bestowed the County with its top honor, the G.W. Haworth Strength of the Community Award.

Greater Ottawa County United Way President Patrick Moran presents County Administrator Al Vanderberg and County Commission Chair Roger Bergman with the G.W. Haworth Strength of the Community Award.

Better parks. Vanderberg prioritized green space and recreational opportunities for residents. One example of his vision is the Grand River Greenway Campaign, which launched in 2017 with a goal of financing key land acquisitions along the 36.5-mile Idema Explorers Trail. The campaign recently achieved its fundraising goal of $7.2 million, critical in leveraging public funding as part of the $21 million Grand River Greenway project. The project will ultimately establish a public land corridor connecting Grand Haven to the Kent County border.

Stronger economy. Vanderberg has served on the Lakeshore Advantage board and has provided key leadership for the economic development organization. The county’s unemployment rate currently hovers at 4.3%, the fifth-lowest unemployment rate in Michigan. It has seen the job market increase by 1.9% over the past year. Future job growth over the next 10 years is predicted to be 36.9%, higher than the U.S. average of 33.5%. 

“Al’s legacy is a gift to Ottawa County that will be built upon as we continue to make ours a community of choice. From the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office to the county robot that serves as a virtual receptionist when you enter the Ottawa County Administration Building, Al’s passion for innovation and continuous learning remains tangible and strong in our local government," says Jennifer Owens, President, Lakeshore Advantage. 

Community Health. Vanderberg put a focus on health, especially community mental health. The county approved its first mental health millage during his watch. It has funded the Ottawa County Thrive initiative with a campaign focused on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). “He has been a stalwart supporter of Community Mental Health, and has created a countywide system that supports human services aimed at lifting up those who suffer from various mental health conditions,” says Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven city manager.

Innovation. Vanderberg has taken pride in being innovative, from employing a wayfinding robot to greet visitors and most recently unveiling an Innovation Room. The latter is geared to teams and workgroups, providing spaces, tools, and resources for creativity and collaboration. It features a backward bike, which demonstrates why "undoing" our brains is so challenging.
Ottawa County's humanoid robot, dubbed Francesca, helps visitors to the Fillmore Complex find their way through the building to the correct department.
Inclusion. The county’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion is another example of the county living up to its motto “a place where you belong.” The county began its Cultural Intelligence initiative in 2013 with the county board approving funding for a DEI office in 2018. The office leads the development of an equity plan for the county, including "identifying implicit bias in internal policies, procedures, practices, and in external service delivery."

“Ottawa is a huge leader in DEI initiatives and is taking a great deal of heat from individuals and entities sympathetic to white supremacist ideals. He’s been bold and forthright in his assessments and has led the county to the right place at the right time,” says Grand Haven's McGinnis.

Adds Chris Burns, Spring Lake village manager: “Al has done a lot of remarkable work during his tenure. The most recent ‘win’ for Al, in my opinion, was the creation of the DEI office and hiring Robyn Afrik (as director). While I’m not aware of whether Kent County has a DEI office, I know that Al will continue his efforts in that realm and West Michigan will undoubtedly be a better place because of it.”

Many leaders across the county agree Vanderberg’s accomplishments were fueled by his passion for making Ottawa County a better and more welcoming community.

“Over my two-plus years as commissioner, I have come to truly appreciate Al’s deep concern for the health and well-being of this community, and his dedication to making sure Ottawa County government assumed its vital role as an engine of its prosperity, equitably delivered,” says Ottawa County Commissioner Doug Zylstra.
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