New county administrator makes calls on and off the field

When newly appointed county administrator John Shay isn't making decisions for Ottawa County, he's spending Saturday afternoons making rulings in a college football stadium.

"I've always loved football," Shay says."It's a way to stay in the game and feel the buzz and the energy ... or I'm just a sucker for punishment."

Shay started refereeing in 1997 and worked his way up the ladder from high school football on Friday nights to calling collegiate games. He'll be working games for the Ivy and Patriot leagues this fall.

"If it's Harvard and Yale, I'll be talking to players that are a lot smarter than me," Shay says.

Top spot in county government

In August 2021, Shay became interim administrator of Ottawa County, and he stepped into the official administrator role on March 24. He replaced former administrator Al Vanderberg, who had served for 18 years before becoming Kent County administrator.

John Shay

"From the administrator's office to our local elected officials to our Board of Commissioners, we have really good working relationships," Shay says. "And I can tell you that's not always the case in other counties in Michigan that I've seen."

The county administrator is an unelected position appointed by the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners. Similar to a city manager, the administrator serves as the chief executive of the county government.

Shay is in charge of more than 1,200 employees and the day-to-day operations of county government. It's not his first time serving in a decision-making role, as he spent 15 years as the Ludington city manager after starting his career as the village manager of Almont in Lapeer County.

"I was used to making decisions," Shay says about his appointment as administrator. "It was a matter of maybe other people getting used to another style or simply a different person."

Pandemic recovery funds

Shay says his priority in his new role is using the $57 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds given to the county in March 2021. According to Shay, it's a "once-in-a generation fund" to address the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure a strong and equitable

"[Our goal is to decide] what is the best way to spend this money in a transformational way that could solve or at least mitigate long-standing problems," Shay says.

Affordable housing, public transportation, mental health, infrastructure, and access to broadband internet are the priorities for the fund. Shay says the county will work with community partners such as the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, Holland/Zeeland Community Foundation, and Lakeshore Advantage to make the dollars go as far as possible.

Works to build trust

Since starting as deputy administrator in 2018, Shay has overseen a turbulent period for the county.
"You're in some aspects learning to fly the airplane as you're building it," Shay says. "You're trying to do your best to make decisions that protect the public and trying to do that in the least intrusive way possible."

Shay says the pandemic exacerbated the decay of trust in government – even at a local level.

"[Local governments] are really working hard to bring a high level of service to residents, hopefully at a reasonable cost," Shay says. "And sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, it just seems like the anger, the vitriol, and negativity is more prevalent now than it used to be."

Shay jokes that he got into refereeing because you're guaranteed a 50% approval rating on a call, compared to county meetings where people only show up to a meeting if they are unhappy. But he says a negative perception of government shouldn't deter people from getting involved. Shay encourages residents of Ottawa County to attend commission meetings to understand the different viewpoints on issues.

"I think if you have a little bit more of that human connection, it makes it easier to see that than just communicating via keyboard," Shay says.

Encourages public involvement

The county has boards and commission openings that citizens can apply for if they want to make grassroots decisions at a local level. That's the reason Shay prefers local government.

"I like to be able to see the fruits of my work and sometimes the mistakes of the work when you have to course-correct," Shay says. "You're definitely closer to the front lines, so you'll get feedback, good and bad, from the residents."

Whether working at a commission meeting or making an offsides call, Shay is motivated by getting a consensus and making the best decision possible for the county or the game.

"No matter what you end up doing, someone will be happy with you and someone will not be happy with you," Shay says. "But the hope is people will say they were treated fairly even if they don't necessarily agree"

You can connect with the new county administrator directly, at a monthly commission meeting, or on a collegiate sideline this fall. Hopefully, his call will go your way.
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Read more articles by Luke Ferris.